Bloomberg News

U.S. Children Don’t Make Grade in Science Even Amid Improvement

May 10, 2012

U.S. students’ mastery of math and science lag behind economic rivals, raising concern about U.S. competitiveness. Photographer: Jonathan Kirn

U.S. students’ mastery of math and science lag behind economic rivals, raising concern about U.S. competitiveness. Photographer: Jonathan Kirn

Two-thirds of U.S. eighth-graders failed to make the grade on a federal science test, though their scores improved from 2009.

About half of the students knew the atoms in a water molecule, according to the 2011 results of the Nation’s Report Card released today. Fifteen percent could fully explain the significance of an experiment about the life cycle of mosquitoes.

U.S. students’ mastery of math and science on international assessments lag behind economic rivals, such as China, Japan and South Korea, raising concern about U.S. competitiveness. The results reflect reduced school-district funding for science instruction, Gerry Wheeler, interim executive director, of the National Science Teachers Association in Arlington, Virginia.

“There is no cause for optimism” about the exam, Wheeler, a former Montana State University physics professor, said in a statement. “When you consider the importance of being scientifically literate in today’s global economy, these scores are simply unacceptable.”

On the 2011 National Assessment of Educational Progress, as the test is formally known, the average score increased 2 points since 2009, to 152 on a zero-to-300-point scale. The score indicates that students performed at what the government considers the “basic” level. That meant they were likely to understand how gravity keeps objects in regular motion and unlikely to be able to explain metabolism, growth and reproduction.

Thirty-two percent of eighth-graders scored at or above a level considered proficient in science, up from 30 percent two years earlier.

Minority Gains

The test measured knowledge in physical science, biology, geology and related subjects, such as the weather, along with the application of that information using the practices of scientific inquiry.

A representative sample of 122,000 eighth-graders in public, private, Department of Defense and Bureau of Indian Education schools took the exam. Students whose teachers performed hands-on projects on most days scored higher on the test, according to a survey of instructors.

Black and Hispanic students had larger-than-average gains, though they still underperformed white test-takers. Higher- income students outscored poorer ones, and boys did better than girls. Scores at private and Catholic schools outpaced public ones.

“The gains are encouraging, but the racial and gender gaps show a cause for concern,” David P. Driscoll, the former Massachusetts education commissioner who chairs the group overseeing the federal test, said in a statement.

To contact the reporter on this story: John Hechinger in Boston at

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Lisa Wolfson at

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