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Science Proficiency All Over the Map

How do top-scoring science students in New England stack up against their counterparts in the mid-Atlantic or South?

Not very well, according to a new analysis of state science assessments by Change the Equation. The reason: states around the nation set the bar for proficiency at widely varying levels, and students in New Hampshire or Rhode Island are likely to have a much tougher time achieving academic “proficiency” in science than their peers in Virginia or Tennessee.

Billed as the first-ever national analysis of how states define proficiency on science assessments, the report finds that states have established “radically different targets” for what their 8th graders should know and be able to do in science. And in many instances, what a state has deemed a “proficient” score is equivalent to below “basic” on the National Assessment of Educational Progress in science.

“At a time when the demand for robust skills and knowledge in science has gone global, ‘proficiency’ may have more to do with where you live than what you have learned,” the report says. “This hodgepodge undercuts a major reason why we have tests in the first place: to provide reliable information on how well we’re preparing students for the challenges of the global economy.”

The study looked at 37 states in which relevant data were available and compared the passing scores states set on their 2009 8th grade science tests against the 2009 NAEP in science. By mapping each state’s passing score onto the 300-point NAEP scale, researchers could equate states’ standards for “basic,” “proficient,” and “advanced” with scaled scores on the national assessment.

In 15 of the 37 states examined —from Virginia and North Carolina to Connecticut, Texas, and California—the state bar for proficiency was actually below the NAEP threshold for basic. New Hampshire and Rhode Island were the only states that had a higher proficiency threshold than NAEP, while in Massachusetts it was about the same.

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