US Student Science Scores

Student science competency in the US has fallen to absymal lows and my own state of California is at the bottom of the pile. We produce a supply of scientists and researchers, have excellent universities for advanced studies, and a job market that employs scientists. The gap between the science-educated and uneducated is enormous.

One of the reasons given for poor performance in California is our number of non-English speaking students; however, this is rather lame considering the numbers of immigrant students in Texas, Arizona, New Mexico, Florida and New York. I think this protective argument is losing plausibility. Other countries (European, Asian and Eastern) produce students with far higher competencies (which I realize has nothing to do with the state of education in California or the rest of the US, but I thought I’d throw that in).

Being one who is convinced that children are sponges and can absorb anything thrown at them, I can only assume that it must be the teachers and/or methods of teaching that are producing these results. I realize that parental involvement plays a huge part in a student’s success, but the numbers display more than a lack of parental interest.

I know teachers; I hang out with teachers. Each is dedicated and earning less than if they were out in the regular job market. I can’t imagine any of them as inadequate and all are doing their jobs because they are dedicated to education.

So where do they fall short? Is it basketball coach used as fill-in science teacher? A Britney Spears generation? Geekiness associated with science? Methods of instruction that don’t hold interest? Emphasis on math and reading? Dedicated scientists lured away by industry?

Despite the widespread emphasis on raising academic standards, the performance of high school seniors on a nationwide science test has declined since 1996, with 18 percent of those tested last year proving proficient in the subject, results released yesterday showed.

The scores of eighth graders who took the test, the National Assessment of Educational Progress, improved so slightly as to be statistically insignificant. The scores of fourth graders remained flat.

Educators said the results underscored the urgent need for highly skilled science and mathematics teachers, as well as other improvements at the high school level.

“The decline is not huge, but it is statistically significant and morally significant, as well,” Education Secretary Rod Paige said yesterday at a news conference. “After all, 12th- grade scores are the scores that really matter. If our graduates know less about science than their predecessors four years ago, then our hopes for a strong 21st-century work force are dimming just when we need them most.”

(National Science Scores for 12th Graders Slip
The New York Times)

``That’s really depressing,’’ said Eugenie Scott, executive director of the Oakland-based National Center for Science Education.

When I talk to science teachers, they are dismayed at the emphasis on reading and math instead of science,'' she said. It’s not uncommon for elementary schools to meet their science requirements by having kids read a book about science in English class, which is not the same thing.’’

Delaine Eastin, the state superintendent of public instruction, agreed. `Perhaps the saddest aspect of these results is that our nation generally is not doing well and that this state, home to the Silicon Valley and a leader in biotechnology, is not doing more to improve our education in science,’’ Eastin said.

According to the National Center for Education Statistics’ state-by-state assessment, the eighth-grade average score nationally increased one point between 1996 and 2000, to 149. In California, the average score for eighth-graders decreased from 138 to 132 over the same period.

I’m not in the US, but I know that at my Univeristy, the Chemistry and Biochemistry departments are getting a little concerned about the decline in enrollment, particularly in pure Chemistry. Many students coming out of high schools now don’t really know what chemistry is all about, nor do they know the differences between chemistry, biochemistry, chemical engineering, etc. High schools just aren’t presenting the materials in a way to help students choose what they want to do. I don’t know the cause, but I do know that the chemistry dept has organised a committee to try and promote chem to high school students to try and up enrollment. I also know that there is a bit of concern over the elimination of O.A.C. and whether the new school system will adequately prepare students for their first-year courses.

As for the teachers, I can only speak for the one’s I’ve had, but I can say that my high school science teachers were quite good. I’m also from Quebec, so I did Cegep, not OAC, which is entirely different because the teachers have to have at least an MSc before teaching at the college level (or inonce case, the teacher was in the process of finishing her MSc, and was teaching General Chemistry).

As a former hater of chemistry now doing biochem with a heavy emphasis on organic chemistry, with the possible future addition of a minor in chem, I am a little disturbed as well at the idea that students just can’t make it in these fields. My only reason for not being on that committee is that the meetings were scheduled during a lab that I had this term. Hopefully I can fit in in starting in January.

Sorry I don’t have much to add about your acutal question (what’s the cause?) but I felt like sharing my POV. :slight_smile:

I have heard a lot of recent claims that U.S. science test scores were falling compared to the rest of the world. Can anybody point out any well designed studies that support this claim? I searched through Google, but all I found were news articles referencing a public official without cites to the studies. Additionally, with state tests such as this one, how are they measuring profeciency? They surely cannot reuse the same questions over and over again or else schools would just give their students the answers. If they are simply measuring “Proffecient” as a certain proportion of correctly answered questions, then the educators themselves could use a little study session in comparable statistics.

threemae: I found the following sites on the process of assessment

“A new report released today from the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES), The Nation’s Report Card: Science 2000, a survey by the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), shows the average scores of fourth- and eighth-graders were essentially unchanged from 1996, and the scores for 12th-graders declined by three points, a significant change.”

These results from their study are interesting:
"Eighth-graders whose teachers majored in science education had higher scores than students whose teachers did not. At fourth grade there was not a relationship.

Eighth-graders who took life science had lower scores than students taking earth, integrated science, biology, chemistry, or physics.

Fourth-graders who used computers to play learning games had higher scores than those who did not. Eighth-graders who used computers for simulations and analysis also scored higher."

The National Center for Education Statistics site lists attributes for the assessment process.

I suspect as a WAG that some of it has to do with the fact that almost everyone in the US can attend high school while in other areas of the world attending high school (or the equivalent) is based a merit competition, accessible only by the best and brightest or those whose parents can afford the tab.

I’m not sure what countries you’re refering to, but I doubt that “only the brightest or those whose parents can afford the tab” can attend high school in develloped countries…

I don’t know what countries you are referring to, but I Scandinavia, Germany, Belgium and Holland has totally free education, as have most of the former Communist Eastern European countries.

If we look at the top countries in student’s achivements in scientific areas, Czech republic has free high school education and Singapore has a very low fee ($5/month for high school). In Japan, high school education has a fee, but every district maintains publicly founded schools that offer low-cost education. In Malaysia, I think high school is free. I don’t know about Korea or Hong Kong. Perhaps somebody else knows. But since education at high school level is highly accesseble to all students in the industrial world, I very much doubt that skew selection is the reason for the differences between the US and European/Asian countries in science performace.

Well it was a WAG. I guess we’re dumbasses then.

I work in the field of education statistics, so whatever I say here is completely made up (like all statistics :wink: )

At any rate, there are a couple of points that must be made:

  1. NCES, which states that scores are dropping, can’t really show this when covariates are removed (income/poverty being the most pronounced). NCES scores in key areas have been flatlined since the early 80s.

  2. NCES data are not based on appropriate sampling frames. Not all science students in the country take an “NCES Science Exam”. Participation in the NCES testing is “voluntary” with money being given to participating schools. Therefore, we have the potential for low-income bias.

  3. Comparison of US scores to other countries is often unfounded since curricula and sequence are different. For example, suppose the bulk of US kids take Biology in their 10th grade year. At the end of this course, they are given an exam. These scores may then be compared with scores from other countries where students may not take Biology until their senior year. These 2 years of academic maturity can have profound effects on scores.

  4. More importantly, the only valid means of comparing scores is when they come from equivalent tests. Since NCES is a US based entity, there is no “check” that Science testing as viewed by NCES is anything like science testing in another country.

To address the idea initiated by Astro, there is a bit of merit to that idea. Many other cultures recognize that “blue collar” work is just as important as “white collar” work. There is no dark image associate with working with one’s hands. Many other countries track students into an academic or vocational track - at student/parent decision level. It would seem possible that the “best of the best” would be in a position to be tested on science curriculum material - as (sort of) mentioned by Astro.

Can someone post a link to a site that has all the questions (some of the questions) from the NAEP science test?

Food for thought: I got to a private high school and science is pretty valued here, but I have never heard about taking that NCES test(yes i live in the US). Here’s my wag. In many inner city areas public schools are poor compared to other alternatives, so parents spend(sometimes blow) some cash and send their kids to private school, where they get a decent education, but they don’t take all standardized tests, so the national average is lowered.