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US Students Lack Science Proficiency: Report

January 26, 2011

U.S. students scored poorly on a national test of science proficiency, with just 21 percent of high school seniors performing at or above capable levels, according to a new report released Tuesday.

The 2009 National Assessment of Educational Progress also revealed that just a small fraction of U.S. students demonstrated the advanced skills required that could lead to careers in science and technology.

Only 1 percent of fourth-grade and 12th-grade students, and just 2 percent of eighth-graders, scored in the highest group on the federal test known as the “Nation’s Report Card”.

“Our ability to create the next generation of U.S. leaders in science and technology is seriously in danger,” said Alan Friedman, a board member overseeing the test.

The results also revealed dramatic achievement disparities, with just 10 percent of black students showing proficiency in science in the fourth grade, compared with 46 percent of whites.

The results were more discouraging among high school students, with 71 percent of black students scoring below the basic knowledge level, and just 4 percent proficient.
Fifty-eight percent of Hispanic high school seniors scored below basic proficiency, as did 21 percent of whites.

The NAEP exam tests students’ knowledge and understanding of physical, life, Earth and space sciences.

Some of the skills needed to demonstrate advanced level proficiency include designing a study to compare types of bird food in fourth grade, predicting the sun’s position in the sky in eighth grade, and identifying a nuclear fission reaction for 12th graders.

In total, 34 percent of fourth-graders, 30 percent of eighth-graders and 21 percent of high school seniors scored at the proficient level or above.  Seventy-two percent of fourth-graders, 63 percent of eighth-graders and 60 percent of 12th-graders demonstrated basic or above-level skills and understanding of science.

The results also revealed significant differences by state.

For instance, 24 states had scores that were higher than the national average at fourth grade, while 25 had higher than average scores at eighth grade.

The achievement disparity was more prominent in certain states, such as Mississippi, where 68 percent of black fourth grade students scored below basic levels, while just 4 percent were proficient.

More than 150,000 students in both fourth and eighth grade took the exam, along with a nationally representative sample of 11,100 12th-graders.

U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan said the NAEP results show students are not learning at a rate that will allow the U.S. to maintain its place as an international leader in science.

“Our nation’s long-term economic prosperity depends on providing a world class education to all students, especially in mathematics and science,” he said.

The Program of International Student Assessment, which measures different types of literacy, ranked the U.S. 13th out 34 developed countries, with China, Korea, Finland, Singapore, and Canada topping the rankings.

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