Middle School Science Scores Edge Up, But STEM Experts Want More

United States STEM achievement still lags behind that of international competitors.

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American students stink at science. But they might be starting to improve just a bit—eighth-graders are doing a little better in the subject than they were in 2009, according to new national standardized test scores.

Average test scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress jumped two points between 2009 and 2011, and 65 percent of students are now meeting at least the "basic" knowledge level. But that's not the progress many experts would like to have seen, especially with the country putting a renewed focus on improving science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) education.

[U.S. News STEM Education Center]

"Two points does not excite me," says Gerry Wheeler, interim executive director of the National Science Teachers Association. "It's like the kid has been flunking all year long and then all a sudden they get a 'D' on the final—well, they've still got a 'D.'"

The United States ranked 23rd in a recent international science exam. Wheeler says that for all the rhetoric surrounding STEM—Obama mentioning it in his State of the Union addresses, Congress considering starting a STEM office in the Department of Education, and pundits nationwide sounding alarm bells—science is still largely ignored in the lower grades. That's because science is overshadowed by English, language arts, and math, subjects that schools must focus on to meet No Child Left Behind requirements.

"I only expected a two-point increase because we haven't done anything differently," he says. "If you go into schools, you'll see science teachers being told to get back to teaching reading and math."

[STEM Competitions Turn Science Into Sport]

Jack Buckley, commissioner of the National Center for Education Statistics, who administers and designs the NAEP exams given to a representative sample of students throughout the country, says any increase in scores is worth celebrating.

"Fundamentally, I'm an optimist," he says. "But I'm not saying there's no room for improvement."

That was the reaction of many STEM experts throughout the country—take any increase where you can get it.

"Is two points enough? No, but it's very difficult to move NAEP scores up," says Linda Rosen, CEO of Change the Equation, a coalition of businesses focused on improving STEM education. "But I'd rather go up two points than not at all. At least the needle is moving in the right direction."

Gregg Fleisher of the National Math and Science Initiative, a nonprofit teacher training organization, says that once you get down into the details of the report, things start getting exciting.

Hispanic student achievement was up five points, black students scored three points better on average. Although large gaps still remain between those two groups and whites and Asians, it's trending in the right direction.

And, perhaps most exciting of all, the report confirmed what many STEM experts have been saying for years—students respond better to hands-on learning than they do to reading out of a textbook. Students who said they completed in-class projects every day scored 16 points higher than students who said they never or hardly ever did in-class projects.

"Middle school science has long been referred to as a wasteland, but now we see there are interventions that are making an impact," Fleisher says.

As his organization and others train teachers who challenge students to design and complete their own projects and experiments, America can expect to see even greater gains in the future. The movement is only growing, he says. "As long as there's this type of teacher training going on, there's no reason not to expect a greater jump in the future."

Jason Koebler is a science and technology reporter for U.S. News & World Report. You can follow him on Twitter or reach him at jkoebler@usnews.com.