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US 8th grade science scores up ... but by just a bit

Eighth-graders across the country slightly improved their basic science skills over the past two years, but about seven out of 10 still were not considered “proficient” on a national test, and experts worried about what the results said about American competitiveness.

Two-thirds of eighth-grade students performed at or above a "basic" achievement level on a national science assessment test, suggesting at least a "partial mastery of the knowledge and skills needed for proficient work," according to The National Assessment of Educational Progress.

"We didn't know what to expect with a test like this," said Stephaan Harris, spokesman for the National Assessment Governing Board, the independent board that sets NAEP policy. "Overall, there was improvement and gains."

The average eighth-grade score increased two points, from 150 in 2009 to 152 in 2011, according to the NAEP. The test is scored on a 300-point scale. The assessment was released Thursday.

 Among assessment findings:

  • 32 percent of students performed at or above "proficient" and 2 percent performed at an "advanced" level, Harris said. The NAEP defines "proficient" as showing "solid academic performance.”
  • Black and Hispanic students showed more improvement than white students, narrowing but not eliminating the achievement gap, Harris said. Hispanic students scored a five-point gain, while black students scored three points higher compared to 2009 results.  
  • The gender gap remained unchanged, with male students scoring five points higher on average than female students.

Read the NAEP's complete Science 2011 findings

"The gains are encouraging, but the racial and gender gaps show a cause for concern," David Driscoll, chairman of the National Assessment Governing Board, said in a statement. "In order to compete in globally competitive and expanding fields like technology and medicine, we must make sure we give our students the tools necessary to excel in an important subject area."

Gerry Wheeler, interim head of the National Science Teachers Association, described the gains as "minuscule," according to The Associated Press.

"When you consider the importance of being scientifically literate in today's global economy, these scores are simply unacceptable," the AP quoted Wheeler as saying Thursday.

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More than 120,000 eighth-graders from 7,300 schools nationwide participated in the exam last year. According to the assessment analysis, of the 47 states that participated, 16 showed a small increase in their science scores over 2009's results. Most states stayed flat, the study showed.

The assessment also found that students who performed daily hands-on science activities scored higher on average than students who performed them less frequently. The 2011 science assessment test measured knowledge and abilities in physical science, life science, and earth and space sciences.

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