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K-12 Science Proficiency Bottoms Out Among Nation’s High School Seniors; Blacks, Latinos at Lowest Levels

Only about one-fifth of America’s high school seniors are proficient in science, and the rates of proficiency are even lower among minority students, according to the results of a national science assessment released Tuesday.

The 2009 Science National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) at Grades 4, 8 and 12 shows that only 34 percent of fourth-graders, 30 percent of eighth-graders and a strikingly low 21 percent of high school seniors performed at or above the proficient level in science.

Racial and ethnic disparities in science proficiency were present at all three grade levels, but the gaps at the 12th grade level show—perhaps more than anything else—the degree to which those disparities might manifest themselves among diverse groups of students at the college and university level.

Whereas 27 percent of all White high school seniors were at or above proficient in science and 36 percent of all Asian/Pacific Islander high school seniors were above proficiency, an alarmingly low 4 percent of all Black high school seniors, 8 percent of all Hispanic students and 13 percent of all American Indian/Alaska Native high school seniors were proficient in science, results from the NAEP show.

Higher education specialists say the racial and ethnic gaps in science proficiency among high school seniors should move colleges and universities to step up their efforts to improve science training and education for minority students in order for minorities to have a better chance of securing jobs in the fields of science and technology.

“It is very disturbing to see more pronounced gaps at basic science proficiency in 12th grade, and that so few Black and Hispanic students are proficient at the most basic level,” said Dr. Sylvia Hurtado, Professor and Director of the Higher Education Research at UCLA, in a statement to Diverse.

“This suggests that higher education has a lot of talent development to do,” Hurtado said. “We need to redouble efforts to build competency in science to diversify the scientific workforce and better position students to take advantage of developing science and technology jobs.”

Others pointed to the role that institutions of higher education should play in dealing with the problem at the K-12 level.

“There’s not enough teachers, and this needs to be addressed at the university level,” said Mary Frances Taymans, vice chair of the National Assessment Governing Board, which oversees the NAEP, on Tuesday in a webinar regarding the NAEP science results.

” We need to encourage strong science students at the college level to consider teaching as part of their career path,” Taymans added.

Still others pointed to the need to offer more training and development for science teachers who are already in the classroom.

“Having quality teachers is crucial if we want to increase student achievement in science and remain competitive in the global economy of the 21st century,” said Dr. Francis Eberle, executive director of the National Science Teachers Association, in a statement.

“Unfortunately, over the last decade, schools have been forced to reduce funding for teacher training and science classroom resources and even eliminate positions to offset budget constraints,” Eberle said “As a result, students are barely able to keep their heads above water in terms of their science education learning.”

The lack of science proficiency is more pronounced among public school students than private school students and is more common among students who attend urban versus suburban schools, according to the results of the NAEP, which examined students’ knowledge in physical science, life science, and Earth and space sciences.

Higher parental income and higher parental education levels were also associated with higher scores. For instance, children of college graduates scored an average of 161 on the NAEP, which was designed such that 150 would represent the average score. However, scores were 147 for students whose parents only had some college, 138 for children of high school graduates, and 131 for children of high school dropouts. Similarly, 31 percent of students who were children of college graduates were proficient or above, versus 15, 10, and 6 percent of children whose parents had some college, graduated high school, or dropped out of high school, respectively.

However, the report cautions against inferring causal relationships between student characteristics and test scores.

“Although comparisons are made in students’ performance based on demographic characteristics, the results cannot be used to establish a cause-and-effect relationship between student characteristics and achievement,” the report states. “Many factors may influence student achievement, including educational policies and practices, available resources, and demographic characteristics of the student body.”

The NAEP science results were based on national and state samples of 156,500 fourth-graders, 151,100 eighth -graders, and a national sample of 11,110 twelfth-graders. But the report states that the 2009 results cannot be compared to those from previous years due to changes in the assessment.

Respective of the inability to do a year-to-year comparison, the results were such cause for concern that panelists assembled for the NAEP webinar repeatedly stated that the results bode ill for the future economic and social well-being of the United States.

“Society is so complicated. Everybody is trying to fool you,” said panelist Bruce Alberts, editor-in-chief of Science magazine. “It’s too easy to be fooled if you don’t think the way that scientists think.”

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