About the NAEP Science Assessment

The National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) is a congressionally mandated project administered by the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) within the U.S. Department of Education and is the largest continuing and nationally representative assessment of what our nation's students know and can do in select subjects. NCES first administered NAEP in 1969 to measure student achievement nationally. The NAEP science assessment measures students’ knowledge of three broad content areas—Physical Science, Life Science, and Earth and Space Sciences—and four science practices—Identifying Science Principles, Using Science Principles, Using Scientific Inquiry, and Using Technological Design. These four practices describe how students use their science knowledge by measuring what they are able to do with the science content. Results for grades 4, 8, and 12 are reported for the nation.

In 2019, the NAEP science assessments at grades 4, 8, and 12 transitioned from being paper-based assessments (PBA) to digitally based assessments (DBA). A multi-step process was used for the transition from PBA to DBA, which involved administering the assessments in both formats. Students were randomly assigned to take either the digitally based or paper-based assessment in 2019. The assessment results in this report are based on the combined performance of students who took the paper-based and digitally based assessments. The transition was designed and implemented with careful intent to preserve trend lines that show student performance over time. Thus, the results from the 2019 science assessments can be compared to results from previous years. Read more about the NAEP Digitally Based Science Assessment.

Framework and Design

The NAEP Science Assessment Framework

The National Assessment Governing Board oversees the development of NAEP frameworks that describe the specific knowledge and skills to be assessed in each subject and how the assessment questions should be designed and scored. The NAEP science assessment framework specifies three broad content areas and four science practices. 

In 2009, a new science framework was introduced to keep content current with the publication of new science education standards, advances in both science and cognitive research, and new trends in national and international science assessments. Because of resulting changes to the assessment, 2009 marked the start of a new NAEP science trend line; therefore, beginning with the 2009 assessment, performance results cannot be compared to those from previous assessment years. Whenever changes are made to a framework, efforts are made to maintain the trend lines that permit the reporting of changes in student achievement over time. If, however, the nature of the changes made to an assessment are such that the results would not be comparable to earlier assessments, a new trend line is started. See a comparison of the two frameworks.

In 2011, NAEP conducted a special administration of the science assessment at grade 8 in an effort to link the NAEP scale to the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS), so that states could compare the performance of their students with that of students in other countries. The 2019 assessment results at grades 4, 8, and 12 are compared to results from the 2015 and 2009 assessments. In addition, grade 8 results in 2019 are compared to results from the 2011 special assessment.

Science Content Areas

The three science content areas assessed at each grade level focus on principles central to each discipline and reflect the science curriculum students are generally exposed to across grades K through 12. The science content areas include:

Physical Science includes concepts related to properties and changes of matter, forms of energy, energy transfer and conservation, motion at the macroscopic level, and forces affecting motion.

Life Science includes concepts related to the functioning of living systems including organization and development, matter and energy transformations, interdependence, heredity and reproduction, and evolution and diversity.

Earth and Space Sciences include concepts related to objects in the universe, the history of the Earth, properties of Earth materials, tectonics, energy in Earth systems, climate and weather, and biogeochemical cycles.

Science Practices

Science comprises both content and practices, which are described below. The four science practices describe how students use their scientific knowledge by measuring what they are able to do with the science content. Although the framework distinguishes content from practice, the two are closely linked in assessment as in science.

Identifying Science Principles focuses on students’ ability to recognize, recall, define, relate, and represent basic science principles in each of the three content areas.

Using Science Principles focuses on the importance of science knowledge in making accurate predictions about and explaining observations of the natural world.

Using Scientific Inquiry focuses on designing, critiquing, and evaluating scientific investigations; identifying patterns in data; using empirical evidence to validate or criticize conclusions; and conducting scientific investigations using appropriate tools and techniques.

Using Technological Design focuses on the systematic process of applying science knowledge and skills to propose or critique solutions to real-world problems, identify trade-offs, and anticipate effects of technological design decisions.

Because of differences in curricular emphasis, the proportion of the assessment devoted to each content area and science practice varies by grade. See the amount of assessment time specified by the framework and devoted to each content area in the assessment for grades 4, 8, and 12.