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The NAEP Science Exam Is Getting a Major Update. Here’s What to Expect

For the first time in 20 years, “the nation’s report card” is updating how it gauges students’ understanding of science.

The National Assessment Governing Board gave final approval to new framework at the end of January that aims to better gauge how students use science in real life and to build a clearer picture of why American scientific literacy has declined over time.

The current National Assessment of Educational Progress in science uses a framework approved in 2005—before massive breakthroughs in every field of the domain. Since NAEP launched science tests under the current framework in 2009, there has been widespread adoption of neural-network computing and generative artificial intelligence; genetic engineering related to the CRISPR–Cas9 protein system; new understanding of particle physics thanks to the Large Hadron Collider; and the first image of a black hole. The world also experienced the warmest decade in recorded history and a global pandemic.

Beginning in 2028, the NAEP will cover concepts in physical, life, and earth and space sciences, as well as practices and cross-cutting ideas used by working scientists and engineers. The science assessment also will fold in concepts previously covered in the Technology and Engineering Literacy assessment, which has not been scheduled for another administration.

It will take several years to create new test questions based on the framework. The test will use digital tools to create interactive tasks in which students simulate multiple experiments to collect data, analyze models to make predictions, and use virtual labs.

“We really want to focus on kids’ sense-making, not just factoids,” said Christine Cunningham, the vice president of the Boston Museum of Science and a member of NAGB, which supervises the assessment. “They might be making some sort of prediction. They might be thinking about which forms of evidence or data most support the argument. We’re really trying to think about, as you look at any item, not only the content that the kids know but can they show that they can use that content in ways that matter in the larger world.”

NAEP frameworks often inform state standards and assessments in tested subjects like science, math, and reading.

“It’s not a curriculum in itself, but it lays out what performance expectations are that can be developed for curriculum, and so it has this ripple effect on everything from supporting teacher professional learning to assessment within the states,” said Eric Pyle, past-president of the National Science Teachers Association and a member of the NAEP science assessment committee.

The new NAEP framework will also align the test more closely with the Next Generation Science Standards now adopted fully in 20 states and the District of Columbia and adapted in 24 other states. While NAEP does not directly adopt the standards, the science framework is based in part on the National Academies’ K-12 science and engineering framework on which the NGSS is based.

Declines in science knowledge widespread

The new framework comes amid rising concern over Americans’ lackluster scientific understanding.

Little more than 1 in 3 students in grades 4 and 8, and fewer than 1 in 4 high school seniors performed proficiently in the most recent NAEP science in 2019. Students tested this spring (the last NAEP using the current science framework), are expected to perform even more poorly, as pandemic learning recovery efforts have focused primarily on reading and math. (Results of that NAEP will be released in 2025.)

“What we’re hearing from schools is when you do something differently, like hands-on engineering, hands-on science, the kids come to school,” Cunningham said. “So I do think if we do engaging science, if we do engaging engineering, we can help with both science and the reading and math scores that the districts are very focused on. I think we need to think about it in a more complex way.”

The 2028 NAEP will include a wider array of questions at the most basic achievement level to build a clearer picture of challenges for students struggling in science. The lowest-achieving 12th graders in 2019 performed roughly six months behind the lowest-achieving seniors in 2009, the first NAEP using the 2005 science framework.

Although NAEP is only administered in English, Sharyn Rosenberg, NAGB’s assistant director for assessment development, said the group will also work to simplify language and provide supports like bilingual dictionaries to ensure English-language learners can participate.

One in 10 U.S. students is an English learner, and 1 in 5 speaks a language other than English at home. It has been difficult to properly include these students in science classes and testing, according to Karen Thompson, a researcher with the National Research and Development Center to Improve Education for Secondary English learners, in a National Academies meeting on K-12 science education this week.

The National Center for Education Statistics, which administers NAEP, also plans to expand the background survey given to students with the test to collect more information on students’ experience in science classes and out-of-school activities.

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