Majority of U.S. Students Lack Science Proficiency

U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan
Arne Duncan, U.S. secretary of education, speaks during an interview in Washington, D.C. Photographer: Jay Mallin/Bloomberg

Fewer than half of U.S. students are proficient in science, renewing questions about the country’s global competitiveness, the Education Department said today.

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, according to the 2009 National Assessment of Educational Progress. Known as the Nation’s Report Card, the government considers the test the most influential view of U.S. educational achievement.

The results were unveiled ahead of President Barack Obama’s State of the Union address tonight, which is expected to focus on the theme of competitiveness and include concerns that the nation’s educational achievement lags behind students globally. U.S. 15-year-olds ranked 25th among peers from 34 countries on a math test and scored in the middle in science and reading, while China’s Shanghai topped the charts on an international assessment released Dec. 7.

“The results released today show that our nation’s students aren’t learning at a rate that will maintain America’s role as an international leader in the sciences,” Education Secretary Arne Duncan said in a statement. “When 1 or 2 percent of children score at the advanced levels on NAEP, the next generation will not be ready to be world-class inventors, doctors and engineers.”

Can’t Compare

The assessment was given to 156,500 fourth-graders, 151,100 eighth-graders and 11,100 12th-graders. The science test was changed in 2009, so it can’t be compared with past results, the government said.

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.

Male students scored higher than females in all three grades, according to the assessment. Black and Hispanic students underperformed white students, while Asian-American students outperformed those in the 12th grade.

“Low-income and minority students are now the majority in America’s public schools. Regaining our global edge demands that we dramatically boost their skills and knowledge and eliminate - once and for all - the achievement gap,” Kati Haycock, president of the Education Trust, a Washington-based nonprofit advocacy and research group, said in a statement.

Thirty-eight percent of U.S. 12th-graders performed at or above the proficient level in reading on the 2009 NAEP reading test, the Education Department said Nov. 18. About a quarter scored at or above proficient in math. In both subjects, students showed improvement since 2005.

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