Very few students have the advanced skills that could lead to careers in science and technology, according to results of a national exam released Tuesday that education leaders called alarming.
Only 1 percent of fourth-grade and 12th-grade students, and 2 percent of eighth-graders scored in the highest group on the 2009 National Assessment of Educational Progress, a federal test known as the Nation's Report Card. Less than half were considered proficient, with many more showing minimal science knowledge.
"It's very disappointing for all educators to see students performing below the level we'd like them to be," said Bonnie Embry, an elementary school science lab teacher in Lexington, Ky. "These low scores should send a message to educators across our nation that we're not spending enough time teaching science."
U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan said the results mean students aren't learning at a rate that will maintain the nation's role as an international leader in the sciences. He and others expressed concern that more students aren't prepared for careers as inventors, doctors and engineers in a world increasingly driven by technology.
"Our ability to create the next generation of U.S. leaders in science and technology is seriously in danger," said Alan Friedman, former director of the New York Hall of Science and a member of the board that oversees the test.
The results also show a stark achievement gap, with only 10 percent of black students proficient in science in the fourth grade, compared with46 percent of whites. At the high school level, results were even bleaker, 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.
"These are really stunning and concerning numbers," said Amy Wilkins, vice president for government affairs and communications at the Education Trust. She noted that minority and low-income students are the fastest growing parts of the youth population, making the need to increase their achievement levels all the more urgent.
The exam tests knowledge and understanding of physical, life, earth and space sciences. Examples of skills students need to demonstrate to perform at the advanced level include designing an investigation to compare types of bird food in fourth grade, predicting the sun's position in the sky in eighth grade and recognizing a nuclear fission reaction for those in 12th grade.
The results also indicated significant differences between states.
Twenty-four states had scores that were higher than the national average at fourth grade, and 25 had higher scores at eighth grade. The achievement gap also was more notable in certain states. In Mississippi, for example, 68 percent of black fourth-grade students scored below basic, and just4 percent were proficient.
The test was given to more than 150,000 students in both fourth and eighth grade, and a nationally representative sample of 11,100 high school seniors. The last time it was given was in 2005, but the test was significantly updated in 2009, making a comparison between years unreliable.
Duncan said President Obama has called for an "all hands on deck" approach and set a goal of recruiting 10,000 new science and math teachers over the next two years.
"Our nation's long-term economic prosperity depends on providing a world class education to all students, especially in mathematics and science," Duncan said.
Experts pointed to a variety of factors that likely contribute to the lackluster results.
Friedman said the No Child Left Behind law has had the unintended side effect of less emphasis on science, history, arts and other subjects to focus on performance in math and reading.
Wilkins was skeptical of that explanation, noting that strong reading and math skills underpin a strong science education.