Students struggle with science

Most American students aren’t “proficient” in science, according to the 2009 National Assessment of Educational Progress  (NAEP) report, known as the Nation’s Report Card, released today. Only 34 percent in fourth grade, 30 percent in eighth and 21 percent in 12th grade scored proficient or higher; one percent of high school seniors have the advanced science knowledge and skills that lead to careers in science and technology.

Seventy-two percent of fourth graders, 63 percent of eighth graders, and 60 percent of 12th graders performed at or above the basic level.

Alarming numbers of students are scoring below basic, said Alan Friedman, a member of the board that runs the exam. Forty percent of students in twelfth grade lack even basic skills.

“That means that a double-digit percentage of our students are just nowhere: They’re uncomfortable with science, they don’t understand it, they can’t do it, and they probably don’t like it.”

The science exam was redesigned in 2009 to stress students’ understanding of science concepts and their ability to apply scientific knowledge and solve problems.  Students are tested in physical science, life science, and earth and space sciences. Because of the redesign, NAEP didn’t try to chart trend lines, but Friedman said students’ science mastery is not improving.

Basic students can:

  • Explain the benefit of an adaptation for an organism (grade 4).
  • Relate oxygen level to atmospheric conditions at higher elevations (grade 8).
  • Solve a design problem related to the electric force between objects (grade 12).

Proficient students can:

  • Recognize that gravitational force constantly affects an object (grade 4).
  • Relate characteristics of air masses to global regions (grade 8).
  • Evaluate two methods to help control an invasive species (grade 12).

Advanced students can:

  • Design an investigation to compare types of bird food (grade 4).
  • Predict the Sun’s position in the sky (grade 8).
  • Recognize a nuclear fission reaction (grade 12).

The 2009 PISA results placed U.S. students in the middle of the pack with  Poland, France, and Portugal, well below students in Shanghai, Finland, Hong Kong and Canada.

U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan said the U.S. can’t continue as an international science leader without educating more students to higher levels. President Obama has called for recruiting 10,000 new science and math teachers over the next two years. Of course, many schools are laying off teachers — usually by seniority rather than ability to teach math, physics and chemistry.

Asian and white students did much better than blacks and Hispanics, AP notes.

The results also show a stark achievement gap, with only 10 percent of black students proficient in science in the fourth grade, compared to 46 percent of whites. At the high school level, results were even more bleak, with 71 percent of black students scoring below the basic knowledge level, and just 4 percent proficient.

Fifty-eight percent of Hispanic 12th-grade students scored below basic, as did 21 percent of whites.

Boys outscored girls.

Most states in the south and southwest (plus California and Nevada) scored below the national average.

No Child Left Behind has pushed schools to emphasize math and reading over other subjects, Friedman said.

Amy Wilkins of the Education Trust disagreed, saying schools with high reading and math scores also have high science scores.

“Yes, we have to be intentional about science education, and we have to ensure that all schools have working science labs, but you can’t introduce a kid to a science lab and expect them to do well if they can’t read the text,” she said.

Students with wobbly math skills aren’t likely to go far in science either.

Go here for sample questions.

And here’s Ed Sector’s handy NAEP Explainer.

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  1. Interesting, but not surprising. I wonder if there’s a correlation between these dismal results and the rise of “inquiry science.”

  2. Richard Aubrey says:

    That would presuppose black kids and hispanic kids are getting more of inquiry science.
    Since non-hispanic whites in America are doing about as well as non-hispanic whites in various nations held up as examples, we should be able to say we’re doing about as well as those other nations except for…we don’t know what to do about non-standard cultures and poverty and, after a bazillion dollars, it doesn’t appear that whatever it is that needs doing isn’t going to be doable in the schools, anyway.

  3. Fourth grade is about the time when students are expected to be able to read their science books and learn the concepts with minimal assistance.

    As you get older, the reading component of science becomes even more significent. Remember having to read and take notes on Bio books and Chem texts?

    How do you teach these kids science when THEY CAN’T READ in the first place? Movies and experiments can only take you so far. You need to be able to read to excel. And our poor and minorities aren’t learning to read….

  4. Mark Roulo says:

    “one percent of high school seniors have the advanced science knowledge and skills that lead to careers in science and technology.”

    What percentage of the native born US population winds up in STEM careers? I’m guessing that it is higher than 1%. If so, then it is pretty clear that *MORE* than 1% of the kids have the “advanced science knowledge and skill” necessary for a STEM career. Of course, some of the claimed 1% *could* do a STEM career, but choose not to and instead go into law or get an MBA …

  5. Well, the reason why US students have such a poor grasp of science is that they don’t have the necessary skills to properly learn it. In order to do well in science, you must be able to read and communicate effectively (which many students can no longer do in elementary school).

    Also, a good background in mathematics is essential to really understanding the processes which govern science (biology, chemistry, physics, astronomy, geology, and so on). Students who have weak skills in math (which aren’t improved by the time they reach middle or high school) will never be able to complete a high school level science course due to the lack of working math knowledge which are needed for such courses).

    Alas, this isn’t a shock to anyone who has been watching the decline in US education in the last quarter century.

  6. Michael E. Lopez says:

    I’m supposed to be a pretty smart guy — a couple of advanced degrees, some perfect GRE scores, a solid foundation in math, science, literature, and grammar. You’d not think I’d have trouble passing one of these tests.

    And while I could easily meet the “Proficient” and “Advanced” standards, I wouldn’t even know where to start with these:

    * Relate oxygen level to atmospheric conditions at higher elevations (grade 8).
    * Solve a design problem related to the electric force between objects

    I don’t even know what those MEAN. What do oxygen levels have to do with atmospheric conditions? Other than the fact that it’s harder to breathe because there’s less of everything up there, I mean.

    And I didn’t think there was “electric force” between objects. I don’t even know what “electric force” is. I know what current is, and voltage, and resistance, and so forth.

    Am I just a science moron?

  7. “That would presuppose black kids and hispanic kids are getting more of inquiry science.”

    Actually, one of my acquaintances is a science professor at a college of education at a university in a major metropolitan area. Said acquaintance’s hobby horse is teaching future science teachers to push “inquiry science” specifically on female and/or minority students in the inner city in the hopes of getting more females & minorities interested in science careers. (I know this because i proofread many of this acquaintance’s papers submitted for publication.)

    So, yes, mine is not an unreasonable supposition.

  8. Richard Aubrey says:

    So that’s the reason. I was wondering if it were something else. ’bout time they stopped it, don’t you think?

  9. Engineer Dad says:

    What can America do about the differences in academic science accomplishment between our ethnicities?

    Perhaps the answer to the source of human differences has gone to the dogs.

    How can dog breeders and owners manage the differences in ability among different dog breeds?

    And what is the relationship between dogs and wolves?

    See the PBS Nova presentation “Dogs Decoded”.

    See it streamed free to your TV on Netflix.

    (This author, of course, acknowledges that people are not dogs.)

  10. –What percentage of the native born US population winds up in STEM careers? I’m guessing that it is higher than 1%. If so, then it is pretty clear that *MORE* than 1% of the kids have the “advanced science knowledge and skill” necessary for a STEM career.

    No, it could mean more than 1% of kids-who-are-now-adults HAD acquired that knowledge in previous generations, and made it into a STEM career as a result.

  11. –And I didn’t think there was “electric force” between objects. I don’t even know what “electric force” is.

    Mr. Lopez, do you remember Coulomb’s Law? Should be from your first day of E&M.

    It’s the electrostatic force between objects, often written as
    F = k (q1 * q2)/r^2,

    where k is a constant depending on units, q1 is the charge on particle (or object 1), q2 is the charge on particle 2, and r is the distance between them. In vector form, you have to be careful about the difference between r hat and rs without hats, and after you learn about Electric fields and line integrals you learn why you can pretend objects with charges can be idealized as point charges.

  12. Richard Aubrey says:

    Thanks for the memories. That’s high school physics, gone more than fifty years.
    Question is, if they meant electrostatic, why’d they say “electric”?
    My kids had a history/social studies curriculum in El which came complete with tests. They had a hard time with the tests, although being top students otherwise. I took the tests. The more you knew, the worse you did. The tests were written poorly. I mentioned this to the teacher who smiled and said, yes, the kids who were good students seemed to struggle here. Then her smile changed to mean the subject had been exhausted. Two problems. One was her attitude and the other is that there are lousy tests out there.

  13. Michael E. Lopez says:

    Ah! STATIC CHARGE force! Got it.

    It’s amazing how important names are to things, and how easy it is not to recognize something that isn’t under the name you learned it. If they had even said “the electric force between charged objects” I probably would have remembered. Thank you, Allison!

    I still don’t know what the oxygen question means, though.

  14. As a science nerd I was pretty sure what both of them meant, but both questions are VERY poorly-worded.

    Maybe that’s the point.  If getting the question right requires more guessing, the adept students don’t look as good compared to the average and poor performers… and the less the question looks “culturally biased”.

  15. cranberry says:

    It helps to look at the sample questions. I knew the answers to the 12th grade questions. They were by no means difficult, and the wording was not deceptive at all. The descriptions of “Advanced students can…” make it seem much more advanced than the test itself.

    I have mild suggestions to improve science instruction in our schools. First, do away with the “looking for arguments about scientific issues online.” (Evolution, climate change, take your pick.) The attempts to make science more “interesting and relevant” are a waste of class time. Focus on teaching students scientific principles.

    Second, create a firm curriculum, with a logical progression. Establish experiments students must perform. Build enough lab space so that all students can participate in a lab science.

    Third, teach more math. While the questions on the 12th grade section were very basic, a student who could not handle Algebra would have been intimidated by the question which asked about changes in gravitational force.

    Fourth, in my opinion, teach more physics.

  16. Yes! More physics! For one, it’s pretty cheap to teach– you don’t need all the expensive lab materials like you do for Chem and Bio. You mostly just need Math and a few other objects (Pendulums, Pulleys etc.)

    Also, teach physics younger. Once you have basic algebra and a bit of trig, you can handle everything in the book “conceptual physics.” My magnet class did the whole book in one semester of 9th grade. Surely less advanced students could do it in a year in 10th!

    Physics is a great way to learn scientific principles without a ton of cash. But it’s also rigourous and difficult.

    More physics!

  17. Wow! Three levels of proficiency, and none of them assess what science IS–and it ain’t math, physics, or creative writing. Do the kids know about the really exotic stuff like observation, hypothesis, experiment, or reproducibility? Or are we just stuffing them with theories and facts?

  18. Richard Aubrey says:

    That reminds me. First experiment we did in HS chem was to boil water. We thought chemistry was about making colored fire and bad smells.
    The point was, though, to take measurements, arrange the data in a useful fashion and graph it.
    Good idea, the prof had.

  19. “Or are we just stuffing them with theories and facts”

    Are you kidding? Kids these days don’t go near facts. EVERYTHING is about hypotheses and the “design” of experiments. You can’t formulate a hypothesis if you don’t know anything and you can’t “design” an experiment if you don’t even know which side of the ruler is the centimeter side (not an exaggeration).

  20. The list of what students can do to be basic etc. is heavily biased to physics, as it should be. The problem, as some alluded to, is that a lot of students never receive any physics instruction. When reading those questions I thought back to whether I could have answered them and I would have been up the creek. I never took high school physics. It was a 12th grade class that everyone talked about as being exceptionally hard. I was completely intimidated and chose not to take it. I did take several biology classes and would have done okay in that arena. After going on to major in biology in college and studying physics and more chemistry on my own as an adult I came to realize how central physics is to science and that it made zero sense that I never studied it before adulthood. However, regardless of all the gum flapping about science education the fads of replacing acquiring knowledge with “inquiry” and substituting environmentalism for science education are still going strong. Just as one example, in Montgomery County, MD one of the 6th grade science units is Going Green.

    Additionally, you know when someone has no idea about what is going on in much of public education today when they say that there is too much boring rote memorization taking place in science education. That makes me laugh and cry at the same time. If only!! Learning and applying the scientific method is very important to science education, but the problem is that it is too often about the process rather than about using experimentation to study important scientific concepts and theories.

  21. Three levels of proficiency, and none of them assess what science IS–and it ain’t math, physics, or creative writing.

    Physics is a science.  There’s a hell of a lot to learn, and very few are going to become working scientists; while it’s important to know how science is done and why the current body of knowledge is reliable and agreed upon, absorbing that body of knowledge is essential.  I’d say that the scientific method can be taught as “history of science” in grades 4-6, and then get into the facts as students have the math and reasoning capacity to understand them.

  22. I’d be interested to see if there’s a correlation between low science scores aptitude those for social sciences. As many others have commented here, it’s difficult to understand science if you can’t read well. Ditto for social studies.

    Like science, social science texts and resources are dense with information, requiring sound reading skills as well as the discipline to approach new information methodically — reading and re-reading, taking effective notes, proactively learning new vocabulary.

    For science, math skills are also important. Even at the elementary school level, students need to have mastered basic skills of interpreting graphs and diagrams to do well in 4th and 5th grade level science.

    Solid reading and math skills are the foundation…without this, the ability to grasp more difficult concepts — formulas, theory, purely scientific nomenclature can be difficult as student moves up in school.

  23. Michael Crichton once named something “the Murray Gell-Mann effect”, because naming things after famous people might make them more memorable. The effect was how in any subject we know very well, we immediately recognize all of the errors in a news report and basically dismiss it, but as soon as the subject in question was not our expertise, we took the news report at face value.

    It’s not just factual errors, but conceptual ones, like wet streets causing rain, that you’ll recognize in a newspaper article about a subject you know.

    It’s difficult to tease apart where the errors entered here, but my guess is that the article writer knew about as much science as the average student did, and wouldn’t have known the difference between “electric force” and “electrostatic force” anyway. My guess is they muddled the oxygen question more than the test did.

    To the bigger issue of “science” and why you need math, reading, writing, and physics skills to assess it, the answer is that you can neither teach nor learn “science” in that generality. You can teach scientific facts in a variety of subjects, whether chem, bio, phys, astro, etc. But if you are trying to teach scientific principles, they you have to be teaching them with respect to *something*. That something needs to be a subject. And even inside that subject, you can’t replicate the principle without enough math mastery to reliably know you’ve measured what you intended, computed the error correctly, etc.

    A student can’t know if their hypothesis is confirmed by their experimental results if they can’t compute their error bars. They can’t know if they’ve reproduced if they can’t read their notebook and determine their original process from their notes. They can’t observe much of anything if they don’t know enough math to make measurements.

  24. Richard Aubrey says:

    In one sense, you don’t need to know “things” if you know something about the scientific method, probability, and replication of experiments to see through a con.
    So, in that sense, knowing one hard science like biology (or experimental psychology) will help even if the issue is, say, global warming.

  25. –In one sense, you don’t need to know “things” if you know something about the scientific method, probability, and replication of experiments to see through a con.

    No, you do. Most people taught generic things about probability and scientific method wouldn’t have any idea how to evaluate when the noisy data they’ve got really fits a curve or not, and when it’s reasonable to claim it’s x^2 or 2^x for that noisy data.

    You can’t have learned that without having learned things. An expert can apply their knowledge to a new field, but they didn’t get to be an expert generically. There’s no generic way to recognize experimental error issues, or the difference between accuracy and precision, or between fraudulent data and data in error, or between an outlier caused by something nonrepeatable in set up and an outlier caused by a new effect.

    You move from novice to expert by learning things in concrete.

  26. Maybe after this revelation more and more parents will use the methods promoted in Amy Chua’s book about the strict style of parenting in China which makes children excel at everything they do.