Science education: US students gain a bit, but still lag

American students fourth and eighth graders showed slight improvement in science education, according to the 2015 National Assessment of Educational Progress, but there remains much room for improvement. 

Alfredo Sosa/Staff
First grade students participate on a math class at Eisenhower Elementary in September in Flint, Michigan.

The Nation’s Report Card is here, and the results are a mixed bag.

Girls and minority students have made modest improvements in science classes, according to the 2015 National Assessment of Educational Progress, but most US students still struggle in STEM. The report, released Thursday, found that only about a third of fourth and eighth graders showed “strong academic performance” in the sciences. And among high school seniors, just one in five demonstrated proficiency.

"We still are not at a place as a country where we are preparing the future STEM workforce that we need," Education Secretary John B. King Jr. said. "We think there's significant work still to do, but we are heartened by the progress that we see in these results."

While science exam scores have remained stagnant for 12th graders, younger students have made some noticeable gains. Fourth and eighth graders scored four points higher than they did in 2009, the report finds.

The study also finds that on average, fourth-grade girls performed as well as their male counterparts in science. Boys still lead among eighth graders, but the gender gap appears to be tightening.

Black and Hispanic students made greater improvements than white students in 2015, narrowing the achievement gap among students of all ethnic backgrounds, said Peggy Carr, acting commissioner for the National Center for Education Statistics.

In May, Olivia Lowenberg reported for The Christian Science Monitor:

One study conducted in California in 2012 shows that of those African-American and Latino students who enrolled in eighth grade Algebra I, just 29 percent of African-American and 37 percent of Latino students reached proficiency. This is definitely not for lack of motivation, the study points out; these students just have not been given the same access to rigorous coursework and preparatory materials as their white and Asian peers.

President Obama has placed new emphasis on STEM education during his eight-year tenure. In 2010, he helped build a CEO-led nonprofit to privately fund math and science education in struggling communities. In January, he unveiled a $4 billion plan to expand computer science education in America.

In May, the White House launched its “Kid Science Advisors” program. Last week the advisors, composed of 11 students between the ages of 5 and 17, convened for the first time.

“The real reason we do this, as I’ve said before, is to teach our young people that it’s not just the winner of the Super Bowl or the NCAA tournament that deserves a celebration; that we want the winners of science fairs, we want those who have invented the products and lifesaving medicines and are engineering our future to be celebrated as well,” Obama said at the National Medal of Science award ceremony in May.

Lisa Hegdahl, a teacher at McCaffrey Middle School in Galt, Calif., says her eighth graders show strong interest in science – both in the classroom and outside of it.

“It’s great because we were trying to show kids that science isn't just about the classroom. It’s about the world you live in,” Hegdahl, president of the California Science Teachers Association, said in an interview with the Associated Press. “It’s about why that tree is growing. It's why it’s making a shadow and why that shadow changes over time. It’s getting them to see the world a little bit differently and starting to be curious.”

This report includes material from the Associated Press.

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