Tests find only one in five 12th-graders has solid grasp of science; figures even lower for minorities

Tuesday, November 20th 2001, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

WASHINGTON (AP) _ Only one in five high school seniors has a solid grasp of science and only half know the basics.

The 12th-graders who took the 2000 National Assessment of Educational Progress scored, on average, three points lower than those taking the test in 1996.

Only 18 percent correctly answered challenging science questions, down from 21 percent in 1996. Those who knew just the basics dropped slightly to 53 percent.

Gerry Wheeler, executive director of the National Science Teachers Association, said he's not surprised at the poor results, considering that schools have increasingly focused on reading and math.

``Our nation continues to shortchange our students in science,'' he said.

Many science teachers complain that they can't persuade school officials to give them the time or money required for training, he said.

Fourth- and eighth-graders who understand science at their grade level held steady _ 29 percent of fourth-graders and 32 percent of eight-graders.

Sixty-six percent of fourth-graders and 61 percent of eighth-graders have a basic understanding of science and fundamental skills.

Among fourth-grade public school students, those in Iowa, Maine, Massachusetts, Montana and North Dakota scored highest; students in California and Mississippi scored lowest.

Among eighth-grade public school students, those in Massachusetts, Montana, North Dakota, Ohio and Vermont scored highest; students in California, Hawaii and Mississippi scored lowest.

White students continue to outperform minorities. While the percentage of white 12th-graders scoring above proficient in science dropped six points, to 62 percent in 2000, that was still nearly three times as high as their black peers _ and twice as high as Hispanic students.

Edward Donley, a member of the National Assessment Governing Board, which develops and reviews the tests, called the senior scores disturbing.

``What this clearly points to is a weakness for most students in their high school education,'' he said.

Wheeler said schools are competing with private industry for college graduates with science backgrounds. He worries that the private sector's higher salaries are ``eating the seed corn'' by taking so many talented potential teachers.

``If they really get all the good science-oriented people, then we won't have the science-teaching work force that we need to produce their next generation of scientists and engineers,'' he said.

About 46,000 students in 40 states took the tests for the national survey. The scores of an additional 200,000 students produced detailed state-by-state results, which were not included in the national figures. The national sample included public and private schools; the state-by-state sample included only public schools.