New report finds most U.S. school children performing poorly in science

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A periodic report released Tuesday by the National Assessment of Educational Progress, shows that U.S. school children are lagging in proficiency in the critical area of the sciences. Only 1 or 2 percent of students at each grade level scored at the “advanced” level, while a substantial number failed to place at the most basic level.

The test was administered to a sample of 150,000 each of fourth and eighth grade students, as well as 11,000 12th graders. The exam is given every four years and scores students’ knowledge of space, Earth, physical and life sciences.

In the fourth grade, 28 percent of students tested below the basic level of knowledge. By the eighth grade, that figure rose to 37 percent, and by the 12th grade, 47 percent failed to achieve the most basic level of proficiency.

“The results released today show that our nation’s students aren’t learning at a rate that will maintain America’s role as an international leader in the sciences,” said Arne Duncan, the US secretary of Education, in a statement. “When only 1 or 2 percent of children score at the advanced levels on NAEP, the next generation will not be ready to be world-class inventors, doctors, and engineers.”

The test was revised substantially since it was last administered and takes into account recent scientific advances, focusing more on measuring higher-level scientific thinking. In addition to multiple choice questions, for the first time, the exam included open-ended questions requiring a written response, to evaluate a student’s ability to apply their science knowledge.

The results showed large gaps between races, income levels, and public vs. private school students.

For example, on a 300 point scale, white students out-tested black students by 36 points, and Hispanic students by 32 points. Private school students did better than public school students by 14 points. Boys also outperformed girls by 2 points overall.

Most of the higher scoring states were all located in the northern portion of the country. At the fourth grade level, the top scoring states were New Hampshire, North Dakota, Kentucky and Virginia, while the lowest scoring states were Mississippi and California.

Alan Friedman, a member of the National Assessment Governing Board and a former director of the New York Hall of Science, said that those evaluating the scores should not jump to conclusions about the cause of the poor results. He suggested that one factor could be an unintended consequence of the 2001 No Child Left Behind Act, which led schools to increase their focus on reading and math.

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