The Nation's Science Report Card Is Out, and It's Not Pretty

By Andrew Moseman | January 25, 2011 4:48 pm

This evening, according to early reports, President Obama will spend part of his State of the Union Address addressing the United States’ “competitiveness.” But ahead of the national pep talk, the Department of Education brought the mood down a notch. The latest results from a federal test called the National Assessment of Educational Progress were released today, and the “Nation’s Report Card” doles out some depressingly low grades for American students’ understanding of basic science.

A third of the nation’s fourth-graders, 30 percent of eighth-graders and 21 percent of 12th-graders are performing at or above the proficient level in science…. Fourth-graders considered proficient are able to recognize that gravitational force constantly affects an object, while advanced students can design an investigation comparing two types of bird food. Proficient 12th-graders are able to evaluate two methods to control an invasive animal species; advanced students can recognize a nuclear fission reaction. [Bloomberg]

At the other end of the spectrum, 28 percent of the 4th graders failed to show a basic understanding of science, and that number was up to 40 percent for high school seniors. That troubles Alan Friedman, a member of the board that oversees the test:

“I’m at least as concerned, maybe even more, about the large number who fall at the low end,” Friedman said. “Advanced is advanced. But basic is really basic. It doesn’t even mean a complete understanding of the most simple fundamentals.” [AP]

Demographically, boys showed higher scores than girls at all three of the age groups. But the biggest science education gaps came between ethnic groups, classes, and regions:

Whites and Asians outpaced African-American and Hispanic students. Low-income students posted the lowest scores. At the fourth- and eighth-grade level, scores were broken out by individual states, and results showed regional variations. Students in cities tended to score lower than those in suburban and rural areas. And students in the Deep South generally scored lower than their counterparts in northern and northeastern states. [Wall Street Journal]

The dismayed hand-wringing has begun, and so has the finger-pointing. Today some critics loudly blasted the nine-year legacy of No Child Left Behind (NCLB) for students’ dismal showing.

“For 9 years, elementary school principals have been telling teachers not to teach science because it’s not part of No Child Left Behind,” says Francis Eberle, executive director of the National Science Teachers Association in Arlington, Virginia, referring to the 2002 law that requires annual testing of those students in grades three through eight toward a 2014 goal of national competence in those areas. “Now those students are in high school, and we’ve seeing the consequences of that policy.” [ScienceNOW]

It’s hard to say for certain, however, whether the “teaching the test” policies that have been an unfortunate byproduct of NLCB are harming science education. The Department of Education changed the science test for 2009, so it can’t be reliably compared to past results, the government says.

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Image: iStockphoto

  • nick

    I like how the older we get, the dumber we apparently are. But this isn’t just a school thing, it’s a failing as a society and as individual parents and family units. Until we address that, schools will continue being baby-sitters unless you’re lucky enough to go to a private school or the best of the publics.

    We should all probably be talking to Sir Ken Robinson and others about how best to reinvigorate our school systems, the 19th century method doesn’t appear to be working for 21st century children.

  • Dean

    I have said it before, I’ll say it plainly now,,,

    We have it exactly backwards. The no child left behind is counter productive to all of elementary education. It is cold, hard, mean to say, I profusely apologize, but the reality is that each child should receive equal access, opportunity, but the extra,,, ALL of the extra should be devoted to the TOP 5% not the bottom 5%. Yes, leave some behind. Absolutely yes.

    Liken it to the oxygen masks dropping down out of the ceiling in a sudden depressurization. The adults put on the masks first. Struggle to put the mask on the child first, you both die.

    Spend all of your education dollars and effort so that 100% pass ? Your best and brightest have no funds left over and are bored to tears because everyone is learning, again, in sixth grade, “Jane. See Spot run?”

    Leave some behind.

  • Wendy

    It’s so strange to see such a once-great country do a total 180 over a short, 70-some-odd year timespan. You guys used to lead the world in all kinds of fields… Now you’re always last or close to dead last in surveys of developed countries, in all areas: education, literacy, health care, employment, housing, etc etc… Why did you let this happen? The rest of the world used to revere you as the Land Of Opportunity, but now we only pity and/or fear you. You’re in a terrible position and your future as a country looks bleak. How the mighty have fallen!

    But in my opinion, the real loser is not the USA as a whole… The loser in this story is the poor everyday child who is missing out on the wonder and beauty of science, and the privilege/right to a decent education. :(

  • Grim

    There was actually a great article placed on here the other day about science in the United States. The sad part is that a lot of this comes down to religion. It seems like a lot of the states are pushing science and history away from their students. Texas is a great example, they believe the Earth is 10,000 years old and that humans walked with dinosaurs. If someone doesn’t step in and get this right then they are well on their way to becoming “Idiocracy” (2006 movie)

  • s

    I can’t speak for USA, but similar results are showing up here north of your border as well.

    A lot of the problems are political in nature, with a predominately female teacher workforce, labour strikes every 3 years, and teaching junk science to begin with.

    Every semeseter it’s the same thing…a class room full of students who can spout off all kinds of stuff about how CO2 “absorbs” all kinds of IR from the Sun.

    When I remind them that E=mc2 and ask what mass has changed, or what other form of energy has been displaced, I get 120 faces all with a blank stare.

    The article’s comment on male/female stats is really interesting. Because in Ontario, more and more boys are falling behind, as a result of a cirriculum that holds no interest for them and a constant cutback to physical education (sorry – but boys are MEANT to run/play and roughhouse)

    An interesting article….good on Discover for posting it.

  • BigCheese

    Just because Climate Change science is too complex for some people to understand doesn’t mean it isn’t true. Calling it a “political” issue is like calling physics “political”. Only corporate tools deny it.

    As for letting the lowest go, that sounds just great! Should we put them in jail ahead of their future despair-filled lives, or just kill them if they don’t pass 6th grade?

  • amphiox

    Dean #2, education is not a zero-sum game.

  • homeschoolmom

    No Child Left Behind was leaving my child way behind, bored to tears. Not every child can earn an A, nor should teachers keep teaching to the lowest common denominator leaving those that understood the lesson a week ago sitting there twiddling their thumbs. NCLB was the stupidest unfunded educational project in our nation’s history. I got fed up when my child entered 6th grade and pulled her out and homeschooled her. She accomplished 3 times more in a school year than at the public school and started college classes at age 16. We learned that public community colleges also have to teach in “held back” mode because the kids coming in were taught at that level K-12. She is looking forward to transferring to a 4 year university so she can once again challenge her mind. She loves math and science because she was encouraged to want to learn them. She scored near perfect on her college entrance tests. I am hoping she gets her degrees in physics and engineering before this country falls completely into corporate deregulation, civil lawlessness and armed militias ala tea party so she can move to a civilized country to shine her talents and love of learning.

  • Anthony

    I agree with Dean. And I can only say that because my two school age kids are smart and doing very well. I do not know the other side of the coin. So there is my hypocrasy.

    I also agree with Nick in that family unity and society are failing. We have become more self-centered as a society and if parents are self-centered then kids suffer. You need to spend time teaching your kids, not just keeping them alive and expecting school to teach them everything they may need to know. I know each family has a story, but bottom line is if you want your kids to excel, you as a parent need to be very involved.

    Finally, not everyone gets to be an astronaut. It’s the nature of diverstiy. Society needs to teach everyone as best as they can, and that means challenging those that excel. To not do so is criminal. Speaking of criminal, school is not a daycare. If your kid doesn’t want to learn or is a disruption to my kid, they have schools online and you should check them out.


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