National security may look like secure borders and planes, good intelligence, and a competent military. But experts say it's also the ability of American students to understand science. If so, results of a new national test are a call to arms to improve science education.
Such alarms have gone off before - notably after the Soviet Union beat the US into space with its Sputnik satellite. But after years of reforms in the nation's public schools, America has yet to make significant headway in science education.
The latest test scores, coming in an era when employers are turning increasingly to foreign talent to do technical work, promise to reinvigorate debate on whether and how the US can make a comeback in science class.
Only 18 percent of high school seniors are proficient in science, and nearly half don't even have a basic grasp of the subject, according to the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), released yesterday.
Students do better in the fourth and eighth grades, where nearly 1 in 3 are proficient, or "competent over challenging subject matter." But the latest NAEP, the most comprehensive national test, shows a worsening of the long trend of slumping achievement as students work their way toward college.
"The same pattern shows up repeatedly on international assessments as well: American students do relatively well in the early grades; they fall almost to the bottom by the end of high school," says Edward Donley, a member of the board that oversees the NAEP.
Such concerns are already prompting shifts in the national reform strategy. Last week, the National Science Foundation, which has led efforts to boost science education for the past decade, announced a $100 million plan to encourage partnerships among corporations, universities, and K-12 schools to get more qualified teachers into the classroom - and improve the skills of those who are already there. But today, states are scrambling to cut budgets - including for education.
The nation has rallied to the cause of scientific education before. Sputnik's October 1957 launch, at the height of the cold war, set off a national effort on science and math.
When it looked like Asian nations were rolling over the US economy in the 1980s, experts again declared that poor school achievement had put the nation "at risk." Governors launched a national drive to make the United States "first in the world" in math and science. But American students still rank near the bottom of those tested, according to recent international tests.
"Companies, including my own, have only been able to meet the demand for research scientists by turning their labs into mini-United Nations," says Mr. Donley, who is the former chairman of Air Products and Chemicals. "About a third to a half of the new scientists hired have been immigrants."
Gaps in science competence are especially significant between racial and ethnic groups. While 62 percent of white 12th graders scored above basic in science on the NAEP 2000, only 30 percent of Hispanic and 22 percent of black students achieved this level.
There are many clues about why these gaps persist. Students that do poorly on science achievement tests often have not had access to challenging science classes, or opted not to take them. They are also more likely to be taught by unqualified teachers, experts say.
Also, the longtime practice of paying science teachers on the same scale as other teachers keeps qualified people out of the field. Some districts now pay bonuses to science and math teachers, but not large ones.
"Science is the quintessential area where not paying differentially has left us all but bereft of well-qualified science teachers," says Chester Finn, an education consultant and head of the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation. "You'd need to double the pay."
Some critics say part of the solution will be to vigorously challenge the current direction of science teaching.
"There is an overemphasis on hands-on learning in the profession, and it has set very low expectations for students," says Stan Metzenberg, assistant professor of biology at California State University, Northridge, and a consultant to the commission that wrote the California state science standards.