Elementary schoolers climb in science scores

Mixed report card shows performance stalled among eighth- and 12th-graders, reflecting trends in other subjects.

America's science grades are in, and the report card offers yet more evidence to those who say the country needs to do a better job educating its high school students.

As with the national reading and math scores that came out last fall, students' progress is mixed.

The best news is for younger students, who are making steady progress in science.

Fourth-graders showed improvement across the board and in every racial category compared to 1996 and 2000, the last time the National Assessment of Education Progress (NAEP) tested students in science, and the achievement gap between whites and minorities narrowed somewhat since 2000. But there was virtually no change among eighth-graders from the previous scores, and 12th-graders performed slightly worse than in 1996.

At a time when scientists, economists, and politicians are stressing the need for the United States to step up its science education in order to remain competitive in the global economy, the stagnation at higher grades is troubling to some. And the results mirror the reading and math scores, which showed younger students making improvements that disappeared later on.

"It's yet more evidence that our elementary schools are getting a lot better," says Kati Haycock, director of the Education Trust, which focuses on narrowing the achievement gap. "But, also consistent with the reading and math scores, we are not getting traction in our middle and high schools. The high school results are quite frightening. You're talking about almost half graduating with not even basic science skills."

The NAEP test, which is administered nationally to a representative group of students, is considered the best benchmark of students' progress over time in a range of subjects.

The survey is yet more evidence, say experts, that the US needs to step up its science education at all levels, and particularly at high schools. Last winter, a report from the National Academy of Sciences, "Rising Above the Gathering Storm," warned that eroding scientific competitiveness was a serious threat to the US economy, and America's high schoolers have stacked up poorly in math and science against those from other countries.

In this year's State of the Union address, President Bush called for an "American Competiveness Initiative" that would add money for science education and train 70,000 high school teachers to teach advanced math and science courses.

One of the questions since Bush's No Child Left Behind policy went into effect has been whether the increased focus on basics like reading and math would have a negative effect on science achievement. The fact that elementary school students have continued to improve in science is evidence, say some experts, that kids are still learning science at the same time as reading and math.

But others note that the NAEP results vary significantly from state to state, and have a close correlation with how rigorous the state's science standards are and whether they hold schools accountable for those standards.

"Three of the five states that boosted scores at both fourth and eighth grade are the only three states in the country that hold schools accountable for science," says Michael Petrilli, vice president of the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation, which advocates tougher standards, referring to South Carolina, Kentucky, and Virginia.

One key to stepping up science education, say educators, is improving the qualifications of teachers. Ms. Haycock of the Education Trust cites a federal survey that showed 61 percent of high school chemistry students and 67 percent of physics students have a teacher who lacks a college major or certification in the subject. Moreover, only a small minority of students takes all three science subject areas that NAEP tests.

"It's not some sort of magical mystery of how to do better on this," says Haycock. "These are core building blocks: what's in the curriculum and who's teaching it."

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