When it comes to science education in Nebraska and Iowa, the test tube is half full, according to results of a national science test released Thursday.
Both states placed in the upper third of the country for science proficiency on the 2015 National Assessment of Educational Progress science test.
But like most other states, they have few students scoring in the advanced range and many students who struggle with basic skills.
In a conference call Wednesday, federal officials said the test shows national proficiency levels are trending in the right direction, with some narrowing of achievement gaps.
“Minority students and girls are making greater gains to narrow these gaps,” said Peggy Carr, acting commissioner for the National Center for Education Statistics. “This is exactly what we like to see. All students improving, but students at the bottom of the distribution making faster gains.”
The U.S. Department of Education administers the test every few years, reporting results as the Nation’s Report Card.
The test measures students’ knowledge in three broad content areas: physical science, life science, and earth and space sciences. It also gauges knowledge of science practices, including identifying and using science principles, scientific inquiry and technological design.
Scores fall into four categories: below basic, basic, proficient and advanced.
Across the nation, science scores were up at grades 4 and 8, and unchanged in grade 12, compared with 2009.
Proficiency rates in Nebraska and Iowa public schools exceeded the national average.
Nebraska Education Commissioner Matt Blomstedt said the state should be pleased in its student performance relative to other states.
“However, we continue to strive for improvement in closing achievement gaps,” Blomstedt said.
Forty-seven percent of Nebraska fourth-graders were proficient or advanced, fourth-highest among the 46 states that participated in the test.
The national average was 37 percent. Ahead of Nebraska was nation-leading New Hampshire, with 51 percent proficient or advanced, followed by Virginia and Vermont.
Forty-one percent of Nebraska’s eighth-graders scored proficient or advanced, ranking eighth. The national average was 33 percent. Utah led the nation in eighth grade with 50 percent proficient or advanced, followed by New Hampshire, Minnesota, Massachusetts, Vermont, North Dakota and Montana.
Department of Defense schools stacked up well against the states, ranking second in fourth and eighth grades.
In Iowa, 42 percent of fourth-graders and 38 percent of eighth-graders were proficient or better — ranking 13th and 14th among the states, respectively.
The percentage of Nebraska eighth-graders who scored in the proficient-or-better range increased from 38 percent in 2011 to 41 percent. Trend data were not available for Nebraska’s fourth and 12th grades.
In Iowa, fourth-grade proficiency rose from 41 percent in 2009 to 42 percent and eighth-grade proficiency from 35 percent to 38 percent.
On the flip side, the test results show that only about 1 in 100 of the nation’s fourth-graders scored in the advanced range. The same was true for Nebraska and Iowa. An advanced score indicates superior performance, meaning a student possessed the skills and knowledge for a successful career in the field of science.
“It is a relatively small percent,” said Bill Bushaw, executive director of the National Assessment Governing Board, “but what we’re looking for and what we actually saw on this assessment is growth.”
He said the test is designed to be rigorous and challenging.
The highest states were Texas and Virginia at 2 percent.
In eighth grade, Utah, Minnesota, Massachusetts and Washington had the most students in the advanced range: 3 percent. Nebraska had 2 percent and Iowa 1 percent.
The test results show that many students in Iowa and Nebraska, and across the nation, struggle to master even the most basic science skills.
National numbers show that 1 in 4 fourth-graders and 1 in 3 eighth-graders scored below basic proficiency.
A student who scores below basic lacks even partial mastery of knowledge and skills that are fundamental for proficient work, according to the government.
In Nebraska and Iowa, about 1 in 6 fourth-graders and 1 in 4 eighth-graders scored below basic.
At grades 4 and 8, the nation’s black and Hispanic students made greater gains than white students, narrowing the achievement gap compared to 2009, the government reported.