Most American Students Don't Understand Science, Test Scores Show

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Fewer than one-third of U.S. elementary and high school students have a solid grasp of science, according to national test scores released Tuesday.

The results from the 2009 National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) are likely to reinvigorate the national debate over America's future competitiveness in science and technology. Scores from a recent international science exam showed U.S. students trailing their counterparts in many European and Asian countries.

Teachers and education-advocacy groups offered several explanations for the dismal scores on the exam given to students in fourth, eighth and twelfth grade. Reasons included shortages of qualified science educators and of advanced science classes in low-income and rural schools.

Many blamed the lackluster showing on No Child Left Behind, the 2001 federal law that requires schools to test students in math and reading, but not science. These critics contend schools narrowed their focus to comply with the law.

President Barack Obama has warned that an inability to prepare students for careers in math and science could threaten U.S. economic prosperity. He has promised a "renewed commitment" that would move the nation to the forefront in math and science education.

Last year, the president launched a $260 million public-private partnership that will help train 10,000 new math and science teachers and replicate successful science programs in classrooms. The president's Race to the Top federal education initiative also rewarded states that promised to improve instruction in the field.

The 2009 NAEP was given to a representative sample of students in 46 states and U.S. Department of Defense schools. About 318,000 students sat for the exam in the spring of 2009.

The assessment, administered by the U.S. Department of Education, measures students' knowledge in physical, life, earth and space sciences. The test requires students to recall facts as well as apply science knowledge across disciplines. The test is generally considered much tougher than state-administered exams.

Scores are translated into three levels: advanced, proficient and basic. Proficient represents solid academic performance, while basic shows partial mastery of skills.

Thirty-four percent of the nation's fourth-graders and 30 percent of eighth-graders scored proficient or above on the exam, while 21 percent of 12th-graders met the mark.

Boys scored higher than girls at all grades. Whites and Asians outpaced African-American and Hispanic students. Low-income students posted the lowest scores.

At the fourth- and eighth-grade level, scores were broken out by individual states, and results showed regional variations. Students in cities tended to score lower than those in suburban and rural areas. And students in the Deep South generally scored lower than their counterparts in northern and northeastern states.

Read more at the Wall Street Journal.