The Difference Between Science 'Skills' and 'Knowledge'

Students might be able to fill in the right answers on a national assessment of science learning, but they don't necessarily have a deep understanding of the material.

sciencekids_bnr.jpgAtli Harðarson/Flickr

American students are more successful at correctly completing simple scientific tasks than they are at explaining how they used evidence to draw their conclusions, according to the latest results from the National Assessment of Educational Progress, known as "The Nation's Report Card."

The NAEP results released Tuesday represent a sampling of U.S. students in grades 4, 8, and 12 who participated in interactive science assessments in 2009. Some of the questions involved what are known as "hands on tasks," while others were "interactive computer tasks." The assessments measure the students' grasp of prior knowledge -- material covered in class -- as well as their ability to predict, observe and explain outcomes based on the evidence provided.

That cognitive leap -- from choosing the right answer and being able to articulate how it was reached -- matters, said Alan Friedman, chairman of the assessment development committee for the National Assessment Government Board, which sets policy for NAEP.

"Science and technology would be easy if all our challenges could be solved with simple memorization of accepted facts, and purely procedural application of known principles and laws," Friedman said at a press conference Tuesday in Washington, D.C. to announce the NAEP results. "In the real world, things are messy and one size does not fit all."

The hands-on tasks for fourth graders included having them assemble a simple electrical circuit and then determine the conductivity of various objects. The 12th graders were asked to test samples from two different water sources to determine the better location for a new town. (The interactive computer tasks for all grade levels are available online via the NAEP Web site.)

The interactive activities used for the assessments were hugely popular among the students, said Jack Buckley, commissioner for the National Center for Education Statistics, which oversees the NAEP administration. Teachers reported that their students said they had actually tried harder on the activities "because it didn't seem like a test," Buckley said.

When it came to the achievement gap for minorities and students from low-income households, the science assessment results mirrored prior NAEP findings in core subjects including math, reading, and history. The group of students qualifying for free and reduced-price meals scored significantly below their more affluent peers. The group of black students had the lowest percentage of correct answers at every grade level.

Interestingly, the gender gap that typically favors boys on science assessments was reversed in some areas of the new results. By a margin of between 2 and 4 percentage points, girls' group outscored the boys' at every grade level on the hands on tasks. For the interactive computer tasks, girls also outscored the boys in grades 8 and 12, although the margin was just 1 percentage point.

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Emily Richmond is the public editor for the National Education Writers Association. She was previously the education reporter for the Las Vegas Sun.

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