Press Release

(Washington, D.C.) –  The 2005 National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) science results released today show strong improvement in fourth-grade achievement, but offer very distressing news about the state of science literacy among secondary school students.

The news in fourth-grade science is particularly positive: The performance of all groups of students at this grade level  improved between 2000 and 2005, with low-income, African-American and Latino students posting their highest achievement in science since 1996.  At the same time, gaps narrowed because students of color and low-income students made the biggest gains.

“These strong overall science results at the fourth-grade demonstrate two things: first, that our elementary schools are getting ever better,” said Kati Haycock, director of the Education Trust.  “And second, they show that the emphasis elementary educators have placed on improving their students’ reading and math skills – the building blocks of all academic learning – has not somehow crowded out science. Fourth-graders’ performance is up in reading, math and now in science.”

The fourth-grade results also show that the lowest-performing students had the largest gains in science achievement  – a testament to educators’ successful efforts to improve the achievement of students who come in furthest behind.

But scores at the secondary level are worrisome. Science achievement in grades eight and 12 remained flat since 2000. While the gap between poor and non-poor students narrowed at the eighth-grade level, results remained stagnant for African-American and Latino eighth-graders. And more than four in 10 (41 percent) of all eighth-graders in the United States scored at the “below basic” level, meaning they lack even rudimentary science knowledge.

The picture is even worse in high schools.  Nearly five in 10 seniors (46 percent) performed below the basic level; science scores remained flat since 2000 — and actually dropped since 1996. As troubling: the gap between African-American and White students grew wider between 2000 and 2005. (See chart below on the over- and under-representation of students in the highest and lowest achievement levels)

“These science results confirm a pattern that we have also seen in reading and math: we’re getting real traction in the elementary grades, but are not yet seeing similar improvements at the secondary level, particularly in our high schools.  We need to get busy.  And that starts with ensuring that all students have access to a strong science curriculum and the teachers with the skills and knowledge to teach science well,” Haycock said.

The NAEP report released Wednesday shows that too few high school seniors, particularly African-American and Latino students, take the full complement of science courses needed to master the subject. Just 22 percent of African-American high school seniors who took the 2005 science NAEP had taken biology, chemistry and physics in high school, compared to 31 percent of White students. (See chart on coursetaking patterns below)

At the same time, data on teacher qualifications demonstrate that many middle and high school students learn science from teachers who aren’t qualified to teach the subject. Forty percent of seventh-and eighth-grade science teachers lacked even a minor in science in 1999-2000, the most recent year for which federal data are available. At the high school level, 61 percent of chemistry students and 67 percent of physics students had teachers without a college major or certification in the subject. Low-income students in secondary schools overall are far more likely than their more affluent peers to be taught science by teachers who did not major or minor in the subject in college.

“Science knowledge is the natural resource of the 21st century,” said Ross Wiener, policy director of the Education Trust. “Expanding science literacy matters for individual kids and for the nation’s economic development. We can’t continue to lead the world if we don’t teach our kids science.”


A deeper look:

State-by-state results also were available for grades four and eight and offer a decidely mixed picture.

Strong gains in overall achievement at the fourth-grade level were evident in  several states. Among them: California, South Carolina, Georgia, Hawaii, Kentucky and Virginia. But those gains are not the complete story. For example, Virginia had the highest fourth-grade science scores overall, but California, despite big gains, ranked second from the bottom in overall student achievement, just ahead of Mississippi.

California, Virginia, Hawaii, and South Carolina also were among the biggest gainers at the eighth-grade level. But these states were the exception. The science achievement of eighth-graders stagnated or declined in far more states than it improved.

(More details about state results can be found in attachments at end of statement)



Fourth-grade science results

Eigth-grade science results


The Education Trust works for the high academic achievement of all students at all levels, pre-kindergarten through college, and forever closing the achievement gaps that separate low-income students and students of color from other youth.