Urban students lag in science

Students in Austin, Texas matched the national average in science in fourth and eighth grade, according to a study of science literacy in 17 big-city districts by the National Assessment of Education Progress (NAEP).  Following Austin, students in Charlotte, Jefferson County, Kentucky and Miami-Dade came close to the national average (which is not very high) at both grade levels.

Otherwise, the news is bleak, as Dropout Nation writes.


The percentage of fourth-graders . . . that scored Below Basic in science on the 2009 National Assessment of Educational Progress.That is 15 percentage points below the already abysmal science illiteracy rate of 29 percent nationwide.


The percentage of eighth-graders in big cities scoring Below Basic in science. One out of every three students nationwide are scoring Below Basic in science.


Percentage of fourth-grade students in Detroit that scored Below Basic in science; the highest level of science illiteracy for students in any big-city district. Only Cleveland (70 percent) and Baltimore (69 percent) come close. The percentage of eighth-graders in Detroit scoring Below Basic in science? Four out of every five.

Two out of every three African-American students and half of Latinos scored Below Basic.

Students taught by National Board-certified teachers did not earn higher science scores.

The test was divided between multiple-choice and short answer questions on life science, physical science and earth and space sciences.

Here’s a fourth-grade sample question:

A student wants to know whether two cups hold the same volume of water. The two cups have different weights (masses).

Cup 1 is a styrofoam cup. Cup 2 is a ceramic mug.

The student completely fills Cup 1 with water. The student wants to measure if Cup 2 holds the same volume of water.

What should the student do next to complete the measurements?

  1. Completely fill Cup 2 with water and then look at the cups side by side
  2. Pour half of the water from Cup 1 into Cup 2, weigh each cup and then compare their weights
  3. Pour all of the water from Cup 1 into Cup 2 to see if the water completely fills Cup 2 without spilling over
  4. Completely fill Cup 2 with water, weigh each filled cup, and then compare weights

Here’s the Hechinger Report on how to improve science education.

About Joanne


  1. Yet another reason why many students who would like a STEM career will never be able to achieve it (despite Obama’s wishes).

  2. Mike Curtis says:

    Maybe it’s not the Science…maybe they can’t read with understanding.

  3. It’s many things:

    * Students in science need to learn to use language precisely and plainly – NOT fancy, dancing around the concept, flowery language. It’s a major struggle to get kids in high school to express themselves without clogging up the explanation with B.S.

    * Weak math skills really hamper students in physical sciences. For lack of a better way to put it, they lack a “feel” for the math. Too many kids have been passed in math with a D that is essentially a “breathing D” – something they are given just for breathing.

    * Many students shy away from subjects they don’t excel in. They refuse to try if they can’t be considered “the best”. They think poor performance means that they are dumb; they don’t understand how much depends on effort, practice of skills, and time invested.

    The saddest part of this is that even an average STEM student will FAR out-earn his liberal arts and humanities classmate.

  4. Michael E. Lopez says:

    You know… it just occurred to me that there might be a problem in our testing regime, and it was that question about the cups that did it.

    When I read the question, I knew immediately what the answer was without looking at the various offered responses. I’m betting most if not all of y’all did, too.

    I’m betting most kids would know that, too, if they took five seconds to think about it.

    But I’m also betting that most of them don’t take five seconds to think about it. It’s a test, so they start looking at the various answers. And the answers confuse them because they’re trying to compare the various merits of the answers presented, instead of answering the question for themselves and then looking to see which letter corresponds to the answer they came up with.

    In other words, part of our national problem might be that students are learning answer-selection techniques rather than answer-finding techniques.

    It’s just a conjecture, but I’ll bet there’s at least a grain of truth to it.

  5. Of course our students are looking for answer selection techniques rather than just solving the darn problem. BUT WHY?

    The answer is because they’ve been taught over and over that math doesn’t make sense, that reading doesn’t make sense, that questions on tests don’t make sense.

    They have not been taught any discipline on how to read a word they don’t know by sounding it out, just as they have not been taught standard algorithms for adding, subtracting, multiplying or dividing.

    Higher order thoughts don’t come out of nothing. When they are then asked to think for even a second, they have no basis for doing so, nothing to fall back on. You can’t comprehend when you can’t even read words, and you can’t make arguments about capacity if you don’t understand what “volume”, “weight” or “half” means.

  6. btw, that NAEP 4th grade question is a Level 1A question in Singapore Math primary mathematics.

    Our kids are flunking our assessments, and our assessments are already outrageously low in performance. “proficient” on these assessments doesn’t tell us if a student is competent at math, science or reading at all.

  7. God, that question puts me in a bad mood just reading it. I wouldn’t expect most 4th graders to get it unless they were highly motivated to do so.

  8. That question is so elementary, I question whether anyone who legitimately* received a HS diploma could fail to answer it correctly.  I would be happy to see it used as a test of basic competency for civic participation, such as voting.

    * We all know that incompetents are given diplomas they have not, and probably could not, earn.

  9. tim-10-ber says:

    all comments are very good…so…let’s see what isn’t stressed in the class? Science and History? So of course scores would be low. What do many elementary teachers struggle to teach? reading. comprehension and math. What is needed to be successful in science? Strong reading, comprehension and math skills. How many K-6 or even K-8 teachers are science majors and qualified based on knowledge (and of course the skills to teach) science? math? english? history?

    So..why do we continue to read about low science scores and very little is being done to upgrade teacher knowledge and skills needed to be a truly highly effective teacher and subject matter expert?

  10. Oh, come on. As if teacher education has anything to do with this. You ever notice how the same teachers suddenly become magically knowledgeable when their student demographics change?

    Look, it’s a horrible test question. It’s annoying, and text-intensive, and the kids could give a flying flip about the test. And you people spend too much time around suburban kids (who wouldn’t do all that well either) if you think this is a pathetically easy for 4th graders.

    But go ahead and wring your hands and declare that incompetent teachers caused black and Hispanic kids to fail to answer an annoying, text-intensive question on a subject they don’t care about.

  11. Something else jumped out at me. This is the sort of question (and many ES science questions would be the same) that is easy if you have any hands-on experience with cooking. Or animal care. Or farming. But lots of kids have no hands-on experience with anything that resembles these things.

  12. I had the same thought as Limetree. Anyone who has done any cooking, or made things…indeed, has done any kind of hands-on work or play at all…should be able to answer the cup question.

    I expect there is a lot learned from interaction with the physical world, including the basics of cause-and-effect thinking, that goes by the wayside when it is totally replaced with staring at and even interacting with screens, and even reading books.

  13. Ding-Ding-Ding!

    And the prize goes to Limetree!

    Yes, rural kids are going to do better on this sort of test because:

    a.) they’ve had hands-on experience with animal care/farming/cooking/hands on experience


    b.) even by 4th grade, many rural kids have had hands-on exposure to an experiential learning program that hones their abilities through competition, such as…..4-H!!!

    You want to improve learning outcomes in the sciences, then perhaps it’d behoove various municipalities to investigate the possibilities of 4-H afterschool programs. 4-H ain’t all cows and cooking, and I can tell you from first-hand experience that their science and technology programs and curricula are not only excellently crafted but are accessible for students at many different cognitive levels. My son had a woefully deficient science education at his parochial school, which meant that when he moved over to public school, he had big holes in his formal schooling. He attributes his ability to pass the state science standards in middle school and high school to participating in the 4-H Geology, Forestry and Rabbit projects, which filled in many of the holes in his learning.

    Additionally, 4-H works on presentation skills, social skills, and speech skills. Learning to manage a grumpy entire male rabbit on a show table during Showmanship competition during the height of spring breeding season while answering very detailed questions about rabbit genetics and coloring takes more than just memorizing stuff to be spit out during a paper and pencil or computerized test. You either know it or you don’t, and you’re ranked right there on the table. Plus you learn how to manage it when your rabbit does something embarrassing on the show carpet (including letting it all hang out in appreciation of the cute doe next to him).

    We could do a lot worse than reinvigorating 4-H programs in urban areas.

  14. I agree with Cal that the question was oddly presented, and it did induce a minor migraine. I plan to ask my 6th and 3rd grade kids to read it later to see how they respond. As Michael suggested, I’m going to ask them to explain to me how they would find the solution without having them first read the possible answers.

    Kind of along the lines of what some have been saying, I think that part of the reason the test scores are so bad is because quality work is not valued very much in many schools. I’m going to go by my personal experience as a parent with two kids in public school (one now homeschooling), and my many years of tutoring experience. It wouldn’t surprise me that kids take a cursory look at that cup question and just guess and move on. Here’s my theory (maybe has some merit?), elementary school kids are rarely expected or taught to do their best. Handwriting doesn’t matter, completing homework doesn’t matter, neatness doesn’t matter, spelling doesn’t matter, learning or using correct grammar doesn’t matter and behavior doesn’t matter. Certainly correctly answering these stupid test questions doesn’t matter!

    My kids have never been told to redo or rewrite work because of it being incomplete, or just plain bad, by a teacher in the 6 years I’ve had kids in public schools. They are lucky (one day they will think so, I hope) that their parents do not follow this philosophy. In the county where we live, homework does not count towards grades so unless parents require it there’s little incentive to bother. Fighting the inertia against excelling caused by this world view is a constant bloody battle in my home, which is why we decided to homeschool the older child this year. She needs a year of being detoxed from the culture of mediocrity she has been schooled in since K. Next year the younger one is being freed as well.

    Where do I live – Montgomery County, MD. You know, the one giving all students a “world class education”. Just to clarify, my kids have had some talented teachers, but they are only able to do so much given that the school has a principal who bullies teachers who do not conform to her philosophy that getting the lowest cohorts to pass NCLB is the only school priority.

    With regards to science – real science barely exists. Certainly not any type of quantitative analysis. We don’t teach the foundation of science very well at all in this county – often it isn’t much more than doing crafts or promoting environmentalism. Or I’ll see “discovery” science that is hands-on, but lacks structure and purpose – leaving kids with a fun experience devoid of any important foundational content.

    At my kids’ school something else happens that I’m questioning whether makes sense psychologically. The teachers, over and over based on my kid’s comments to me, tell the students that the state testing is testing whether the teachers are doing a good job rather than testing whether the kids know anything. My guess is that they don’t want the kids to feel pressure, but isn’t this also promoting a “why should I care” attitude about the tests? Why not just guess and get it over with if it doesn’t reflect upon you? I just fail to see how telling them this is a good idea. But hey, I got my degrees in biology, not educational philosophy, so what do I know!

  15. Limetree – gotta agree! We LOVE 4H! We live in the city – must drive 30 minutes to get to our club. It’s not promoted outside of what’s left of the rural parts of our area.

    I also think that this is a question that kids who spend a lot of free time playing and exploring will be able to get without any problem. Filling the sink with water and letting my boisterous son go to town with cups and whatever waterproof thing I could keep him busy with was a common occurrence in my house. Unfortunately too many kids spend their days and nights connected to screens – not much chance for this kind of learning in that type of environment.

  16. It wouldn’t surprise me that kids take a cursory look at that cup question and just guess and move on


    I teach algebra and recently noticed that many kids simply don’t try on multiple choice tests. The existence of answers, and the notion that they could guess and have a 1 in 4 chance of getting a right answer–along with the low stakes–has them engaging in test behavior that gives me conniptions. I’ve recently started demonstrating the importance to them by giving them multiple choice questions for tests (rather than free response) and increasing the stakes. It’s had very good results. I’m not going full multiple choice, but it’s definitely something that needs to be included as part of regular instruction for kids who aren’t highly vested in performing well.

  17. chartermom says:

    I also wonder if part of the problem may be poor quality tests in general. I know that whenever I’ve reviewed a sample state test here in NC I’ve been appalled at the poor quality. As an adult I read through the questions and often know the answer that is expected but it may or may not be the right answer (or at least the only right answer). And kids who actually do try and think the questions through may have a lot of difficulty so many of the kids learn that the best strategy is not to waste their time actually trying to figure out an answer but instead guess. Both my kids confirmed my thoughts when they came home complained about the tests — one calls them “opinionated” (that gave me a great opportunity to explain the word biased) and the other complains that often there is more than 1 possible correct answer. As my kids also had experience with well-known nationally normed tests as part of their charter school experience, I asked them if the same problems existed with those tests — they were unequivocal in their “NO”. (Here in NC the charters must administer the state tests but both charters my boys attended used the nationally normed tests for diagnostic and measurement purposes because the state tests didn’t provide that type of information).

    The net is poor quality tests may be driving poor quality test taking — so even when kids are provided with a high quality test, they use poor habits.

    On a side note: This week the NC House voted to suspend 4 of the high school level subject tests and I just heard an interview on the radio this morning from one of the leaders on that effort. He was formerly a high school history teacher (one of the tests suspended was US History) and he said that one of the reasons that the tests were being suspended was that they were poor quality and often the questions had more than one right answer. And to think — a middle schooler could have told them that!

  18. Richard Aubrey says:

    Said it before…. My kids had a third-fifth grade Soc Sci series with prepared tests. The more you knew, the harder the tests were. One teacher said, brightly, that she had noticed the better students did worse. Smiled at me in a way to make it clear the subject was now closed.

  19. Tests engineered to “reduce the gap”.  What a concept!