Science scores rise with hands-on and choice

Eighth grade students who do more hands-on science projects in class score higher on a national science test than students who do fewer projects, according to the “The Nation’s Report Card” released this week.  So do students who take advantage of opportunities to do science “not for school.”

In 2011, a sample of 122,000 students from all the states took the science section of the National Assessment of Educational Progress.  Their performance was measured in physical, life, and earth and space science, using a combination of multiple choice and open-answer questions.  The NAEP is a good, thoughtful test, not narrowly pitched at a particular curriculum and not a test students can cram for.

Overall, on a 300-point scale, students in 2011 scored 2 points better than on the previous test administration in 2009. African-American and Hispanic students made the most progress, slightly narrowing the achievement gap between them and their white or Asian peers.

Science performance still strongly correlates with family income.  Students eligible for free or reduced-price school lunch (45% of students) score 27 points lower on the science NAEP than their more affluent classmates.  Two years ago, the difference was 28 points. And male students on average score 5 points higher than female students.

Along with the test questions, students and teachers answer questions about their background, attitudes, and practices within the science classroom.  These answers can be correlated with student scores to see if some practices are associated with higher scores.  Of course, correlation does not prove causation, but it does raise hypotheses for further investigation.

In the 2009 science NAEP, higher student scores were strongly correlated with classrooms that spent more time on hands-on science projects.  The median 8th grade student works on a hands-on activity or investigation in class once or twice weekly.  The more often they do, the higher their scores: students who did hands-on investigations almost daily scored 16 point higher than those who did so almost never.  Presumably the latter students were doing most of their learning from books and worksheets.

Also positive, but less strongly so, was the correlation between working together with other students on a science project and student performance.  Here the score difference between those doing so almost daily and those never doing so was 7 points.

The impact of student interest and out-of-school involvement in science activities can be discerned from another question, asking students whether they agree with the statement, “I do science–related activities that are not for school.”  29% of students agree.  Those who strongly agree perform 16 points better than those who strongly disagree.

For us at Tumblehome Learning, these findings underline our commitment to providing fun, engaging, scientifically sound stories and activities for students to pursue on their own or with friends.  Let’s bump up that 29% of students who do science even when they don’t have to.  With interest comes effort, improved learning, and opportunity.  That’s where we’re aiming.