When children start kindergarten, sizable yet modifiable gaps in science knowledge already exist between Whites and minorities and between youngsters from upper-income and low-income families.
And, unfortunately, those disparities often deepen into significant achievement gaps by the end of eighth grade if they are not addressed during elementary school.
Those are some of the findings in a new report by researchers from Pennsylvania State University and the University of California, Irvine. The report was published this week in an American Educational Research Association journal and provides a rare glimpse into the science knowledge of this country’s youngest students.
The researchers’ findings suggest that, in order for the United States to maintain long-term scientific and economic competitiveness in the world, policymakers need to renew efforts to ensure access to high-quality, early learning experiences in child care settings, pre-schools and elementary schools.
Put another way, waiting to address science achievement gaps in middle or high school may be too late.
“Unfortunately, as the United States experiences greater income inequality, science achievement gaps may be experienced by progressively larger percentages of children,” the report’s authors wrote. “(Those) with low levels of science achievement may be less able as adults to understand public policy issues necessitating ever-greater scientific literacy and reasoning as well as experience lower employment and prosperity.”
The researchers’ study tracked 7,757 children from their start in kindergarten to the end of eighth grade.
Researchers found that kindergarteners’ general knowledge about the world was the strongest predictor of their knowledge in first grade, which subsequently was the strongest predictor of their science achievement in third grade. Students’ science achievement gaps were relatively stable from third through eighth grade.
Specifically, among kindergarteners with low levels of general knowledge, 62 percent were struggling in science by the time they reached third grade and 54 percent were struggling in that subject in eighth grade.
General knowledge gaps between ethnic minorities and Whites were already large at the time students began kindergarten, the researchers found.
For instance, 58 percent of Black kindergarteners had general knowledge scores in the bottom quartile across all racial groups combined. More than 40 percent of Hispanics and 52 percent of American Indians, respectively, scored in the bottom quartile.
Only 15 percent of White kindergarteners, however, were in this bottom quartile.
Meanwhile, about 65 percent of low-income children, regardless of race, entered kindergarten with low levels of general knowledge, compared with only 10 percent of upper-income children.
“We were dismayed by how early the (knowledge) gaps emerged,” said Dr. Paul Morgan, a Penn State associate professor of education policy studies and the report’s lead author. “Our findings argue for the importance of intervening early, particularly for children who may be at risk.”
Morgan and his colleagues found that lower socioeconomic status may play a particularly important role in explaining science achievement gaps, including those disproportionately experienced by racial, ethnic and language-minority children.
“Children growing up in (such) families typically experience comparatively fewer early opportunities to learn about the natural and social sciences,” the authors wrote. “Their parents often have lower educational levels and therefore less science knowledge themselves as well as fewer resources available to direct toward the children’s cognitive and academic growth. Children who are racial and ethnic minorities are twice as likely to live in poverty as those who are White. Children raised in poverty often attend poorly resourced and racially segregated schools that further limit their academic opportunities.”
A general knowledge test administered during kindergarten revealed children’s understanding of the physical, biological and social sciences. The test included questions involving the earth, physical and life sciences along with social studies. The science-related questions focused on two types of competencies: conceptual understanding of earth and space science, life science and physical science concepts and, secondly, skills such as asking questions, drawing conclusions and making predictions.
Math and reading achievement were associated with science achievement during third to eighth grades, which suggests that improving reading and math skills among low-performing children can help address science achievement gaps.
Among the families in the study, parents of third-graders were asked a series of survey questions to determine whether they engaged in specific activities with their child. These activities included reading stories together, playing sports, building things, and visiting a museum or zoo. Parents also were asked if the families subscribed to newspapers or magazines, owned a dictionary or calculator and whether they had a library card.
Morgan said that, within families, parents who regularly talk and interact with toddlers can point out and explain physical, natural and social events occurring around them daily. This might help youngsters learn facts and concepts that will prepare them to take better advantage of science instruction they receive during elementary and middle school.
Co-authors of the report are Dr. George Farkas, a UC-Irvine education professor; Dr. Marianne Hillemeier, a Penn State professor of health policy, administration and demography; and Steve Maczuga, a research programmer at Penn State’s Population Research Institute.