American Students Struggle with Science

Vincent Giordano | Dreamstime

Two-thirds of fourth-graders and four-fifths of high-school seniors fail to reach proficiency levels in science, according to a new Department of Education report.

Students who excelled in science at their grade level were even rarer, the report revealed. Only 1 percent of fourth-graders, 2 percent of eighth-graders and 1 percent of 12th-graders performed at an advanced level in science.

A nationally representative sample of more than 300,000 fourth and eighth-graders and 11,000 high-school seniors took standardized science tests in 2009. The test is part of the National Assessment of Education Progress, also known as the "Nation's Report Card." It was last administered in 2005. The Department of Education has updated the test since then, meaning the latest results can't be compared with previous years.

Students who perform at proficiency levels exhibit "solid academic performance," according to the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES), the branch of the Department of Education that oversees the testing. Ideally, all students would achieve proficiency, according to the NCES. For a fourth-grader, that means understanding concepts such as gravity's effect on an object. Eighth-graders should be able to relate characteristics of air masses to global regions, while a proficient 12th-grader should be able to evaluate methods to control invasive species.

In 2009, 34 percent of fourth-graders, 30 percent of eighth-graders and 21 percent of 12th-graders achieved proficiency in science. Meanwhile, 72 percent of fourth-graders, 63 percent of eighth-graders and 60 percent of seniors received basic-level scores, meaning they had a partial grasp of the science concepts tested.

Just a few percent of students achieved advanced level scores, which require that fourth-graders design a simple science experiment. An example of an advanced eighth-grade science skill would be the ability to predict the sun's position in the sky at a given time, while an advanced senior should recognize a nuclear fission reaction.

Scores varied by ethnicity and school location. In the elementary and middle-school age groups, white students scored higher than other ethnicities. In the high-school group, white students and Asian/Pacific Islander students scored on the same level, higher than other ethnicities. White students scored an average of 36 points higher than black students in grades four and eight and 34 points higher in grade 12. White students also outscored Hispanic students by 32 points on average in fourth grade, 30 points in eighth grade and 25 points in 12th grade.

Fourth and eighth-graders in urban schools scored lower than those in suburban and rural locations. High-school students attending city schools scored slightly lower than those attending suburban schools, but urban high-school scores were not different from schools in small towns or rural locations.

Scores also differed slightly by gender, a gap that widened with age. Fourth-grade boys scored two points higher than girls on a 300-point scale. Eighth-grade boys scored four points higher than girls, and senior boys scored an average of six points higher than senior girls.

The full report is available at the NCES website.

You can follow LiveScience Senior Writer Stephanie Pappas on Twitter @sipappas.

Stephanie Pappas
Live Science Contributor

Stephanie Pappas is a contributing writer for Live Science, covering topics ranging from geoscience to archaeology to the human brain and behavior. She was previously a senior writer for Live Science but is now a freelancer based in Denver, Colorado, and regularly contributes to Scientific American and The Monitor, the monthly magazine of the American Psychological Association. Stephanie received a bachelor's degree in psychology from the University of South Carolina and a graduate certificate in science communication from the University of California, Santa Cruz.