Press Release

WASHINGTON (January 25, 2011) — Tonight, President Obama’’s State of the Union address will focus on the need to revive our economy through innovation. Science is essential to this enterprise. The sciences have long been a springboard for innovation and will only become more important in driving our nation forward. Indeed, the Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates that science and engineering jobs in the U.S. will increase by more than 21 percent between 2006 and 2016 – double the growth rate of all other workforce sectors combined.

However, the results of the 2009 National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) cast a troubling shadow over our future as leaders in scientific innovation and accomplishment.

Overall, only one-third of our fourth-graders and eighth-graders and just one in five twelfth-graders are proficient in science.

These results are in line with recent international findings showing that our high schoolers are only “average” when compared with the rest of the developed world. In fact, they do about as well in science as their counterparts in countries like Portugal and Hungary, but trail their peers in Canada, Germany, and Japan, among a dozen developed nations.

Under the averages, though, lies even more disturbing information about the skills and knowledge of low-income students and students of color – who together make up the majority of our nation’s students.

The NAEP science proficiency rates in science for black, Hispanic, and low-income students are about four times lower than are the rates for their white and more affluent classmates. Among eighth-graders, for example, 41 percent of white and more affluent students are proficient or higher, as compared to just 12 percent of Latino and low-income students and 8 percent of African Americans.

“Low-income and minority students are now the majority in America’s public schools. Regaining our global edge demands that we dramatically boost their skills and knowledge and eliminate – once and for all – the achievement gap,” said Kati Haycock, president of The Education Trust. “But even that’s not enough. Today’s NAEP results make clear that too many of our more fortunate kids aren’t being served all that well, either. We have to close these gaps and raise achievement for all students.”

To do that, we must ensure that all students have access to broad, rigorous coursework and strong instruction to prepare them well for college or career. According to Achieve, 32 percent of college students say they would have taken more challenging science courses in high school had they known what college-level expectations were really like. And a whopping 41 percent of their peers who didn’t go to college say the same, given the demands of the workplace.

NAEP’s examination of science course-taking patterns confirms that we have a long way to go to prepare students well for life after high school: In 2009, just one-third of twelfth-graders reported having taken a rigorous science curriculum that includes biology, chemistry and physics.

And we are failing to give them the strong teachers they need, too. Research shows that high school teachers with demonstrated subject-matter knowledge produce stronger gains for students, particularly in math and science. But analyses of federal data show that while most high school teachers have been deemed “highly qualified” by their states, teachers themselves report that about one in five core academic courses – including science – at high-poverty high schools are taught by an educator who neither majored or minored in the subject in college nor is certified in the course’s subject matter. This means that far too many high school science teachers are – through no fault of their own – just a chapter ahead of their students in the courses they are asked to teach.

“At some point, you begin to wonder how many warning bells have to ring and how many political speeches must call for change before we actually do what’s necessary to reverse these trends,” said Haycock. “Some schools are already doing the hard work to ensure that all students achieve at high levels. But in far too many communities, students are still waiting for educators to muster the courage to transform these patterns – and their life trajectories. Our kids – and our country – can wait no longer.”

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For a deeper analysis of achievement gaps by state, visit: