Despite global tech growth, test results show U.S. students are terrible at science

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At a time when the United States is desperately trying to compete globally in the tech sector, our student are drastically underperforming in science. Results from the 2009 National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) have been released and children in the United States did not fair well. Less than one-third of all students in the country passed the test with a score of Proficient or above. Worse, students in older grades consistently performed more poorly than their younger counterparts. 34 percent of fourth-graders scored at a Proficient level, followed by 30 percent of eight-graders and 21 percent of twelth-graders. Only 1-2 percent of students scored at the Advanced level, indicating “superior performance.”

More frightening, 28-40 percent of students failed to demonstrate a “Basic” grasp on science concepts. Breaking that range down shows a similar trend: 72 percent of fourth-graders, 63 percent of eighth-graders, and 60 percent of twelfth-graders attained a rank of Basic or greater.

When split up by state, about half of U.S. states posted scores higher than the national average, most of which are located in the northern part of the country. 10-15 states posted lower than average rankings. Oddly most of these underperforming areas are in the southern part of the country. They include California, Nevada, Arizona, New Mexico, Arkansas, Louisiana, and Alabama.

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The test was given to more than 150,000 students in the fourth and eighth grade, as well as a “nationally representative” sample of 11,100 twelfth-graders. The last time this test was given was in 2005, and the results were equally alarming. According to the AP, a 2009 PISA test ranked U.S. students in line with countries like France, Poland, and Portugal, but well behind students in competing countries like China. President Obama has spoken out about science and would like to hire 10,000 new science and math teachers in the next couple years. One of President Bush’s major pieces of passed legislation, No Child Left Behind, is up for renewal this year.

“Science has been left off the national agenda for too long, and now we are paying the price,” said Francis Eberle, executive director of the National Science Teachers Association, to the WSJ. “We are seeing a persistent degradation of skills, and we’ve lost a generation of students.”

Here are two example questions given to students in Grade 12:

Which statement about the offspring that result from sexual reproduction is generally true?

  1. The offspring show genetic variation from the parents.
  2. The offspring have genetic material identical to that of one another.
  3. The offspring have genetic material identical to that of one of the parents.
  4. The offspring have twice as much genetic material as each parent.

Which particle is a negatively charged ion?

  1. Hydrogen (H) with 1 proton, 0 neutrons, and 1 electron
  2. Sodium (Na) with 11 protons, 12 neutrons, and 10 electrons
  3. Chlorine (Cl) with 17 protons, 18 neutrons, and 18 electrons
  4. Magnesium (Mg) with 12 protons, 12 neutrons, and 12 electrons


If you answered these questions correctly (Q1: 1, Q2:  3) then you may be better at science than 40 percent of students in grade 12. To explore the data more deeply, and see how it breaks down by gender and race, head to nationsreportcard.gov.

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