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Utah students lead the nation in science scores, Nation's Report Card shows

Published October 27, 2016 11:01 am

Education • Math and reading tests from 2015 also show state's students outperforming the national average.
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Science education in Utah, according to Matt Smith, has come a long way in the past 20 years.

Where schools once relied on memorization, they now emphasize experimentation, said Smith, a physics teacher and assistant principal at Salt Lake Center for Science Education.

It's a better approach, he said, because it focuses less on a body of content knowledge and more on understanding the world.

"It's a way of answering questions," he said. "Those skills transfer to all areas of life."

Utah's methods appear to be working.

According to new data, released Thursday by the National Center for Education Statistics, Utah's eighth-graders lead the nation in the science portion of the 2015 National Assessment of Educational Progress, also known as The Nation's Report Card.

Utah's eighth-grade students scored an average of 166 on a 300-point scale, 13 points above the national average .

Fourth-graders in Utah scored 160 on the science test, seven points above the national average, to give them the No. 9 rank.

Scores at those grade levels were improved from the last time the science test was administered — 2011 for eighth grade and 2009 for fourth grade — climbing five points and six points for eighth grade and fourth grade, respectively.

"This is terrific news," Utah Board of Education spokesman Mark Peterson said, "We are the only state with at least half the students proficient in science."

The National Assessment of Educational Progress, or NAEP, tests a representative sample of students in most states to generate a national snapshot of student learning.

Math and reading tests from 2015 were released last year and similarly showed Utah students outperforming the national average and maintaining the state's scores despite declines across the country in those subject areas.

"I think this bodes very well for STEM subjects in Utah schools," Peterson said, referring to an acronym for science, technology, engineering and mathematics. "We are doing a happy dance here."

In addition to overall scores, the NAEP measures students' performance relative to grade-level expectations.

In Utah, 45 percent of fourth-graders scored at or above a proficient level, compared to 37 percent nationally, and 50 percent of eighth-graders met proficiency levels, compared to 33 percent nationally.

Utah also scored above the national averages for most demographic groups, including low-income students in fourth and eighth grades.

Among Utah's eighth-grade students, American Indians scored two points below the national average, and Asians/Pacific Islanders scored six points below the national average.

Peterson said that result could be due to relatively high numbers of Pacific Islanders in the state, who traditionally underperformed compared to their white peers, compared to larger Asian populations throughout the rest of the country and who tend to score near or better than white students.

Demographic scores were not given for black students in Utah, or for American Indian and Asian/Pacific Islander students in fourth grade, due to insufficient sample size.

In a news release, state Superintendent Sydnee Dickson said she was "incredibly proud" of Utah students and teachers.

"While there is still clearly room to grow and still achievement gaps that have to be erased," Dickson said, "Utah should take pride in this accomplishment."

In an email to The Salt Lake Tribune, Utah Gov. Gary Herbert said eighth-grade students are working hard, and that their success is a testament to the dedication and skills of teachers, parents and the students themselves.

"These high marks are something to be proud of, but they do not mean our work is complete," the email said. "We must continue to collaborate and innovate to meet the needs of today's students. We look forward to making continual progress in science and all of our core subjects."


Twitter: @bjaminwood —

Utah's 2015 NAEP Science scores 8TH GRADE

All students • 166

American Indian • 138

Asian/Pacific Islander • 157

Black • N/A

Hispanic • 144

White • 172

Female • 164

Male • 168

Low income • 152


All students • 160

American Indian • N/A

Asian/Pacific Islander: • N/A

Black • N/A

Hispanic • 134

White • 166

Female • 158

Male • 161

Low income • 146






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