Weak Science Scores Dim Hopes for High-Tech Workforce of the Future

Published January 1, 2002

Low test scores in a national science test recently confirmed what the Third International Math and Science Study first revealed in February 1998: That the performance of U.S. high school students in science is not up to the demands of the high-tech workforce of the future.

With 12th-grade scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) tests even lower than they were four years ago, U.S. Secretary Rod Paige warned that hopes for a strong twenty-first century workforce “are dimming just when we need them most.”

“There is something wrong when American schools cannot produce enough good workers for valuable American jobs,” he complained, noting the U.S. had to import more than 100,000 skilled foreign workers in 1999 and 2000 to meet the demands of the nation’s high-tech industry. “There’s something wrong when foreign workers are getting jobs in America because we failed to teach American graduates the skills,” he added.

Right now, continued Paige, the U.S. educational system is not delivering the excellent grounding in science necessary for children to pursue careers as inventors, engineers, doctors, computer designers, scientists, chemists, astronomers, naturalists, and so on.

Emphasizing this was a matter of national security as well as economics, he quoted a recent report from the U.S. Commission on National Security in the 21st Century. (See “Panel: U.S. Science Education Poses Security Risk,” School Reform News, December 2001.)

“The U.S. need for the highest quality of human capital in science, mathematics, and engineering is not being met,” wrote Commission chairmen former senators Gary Hart and Warren Rudman, “[and one] reason for the growing deficit in high-quality human capital is that the American Kindergarten-12 education system is not performing as well as it should.”

In the “Nation’s Report Card: Science 2000,” released on November 20, the Education Department’s National Center for Education Statistics reported that average scores for 4th- and 8th-graders were flat compared to 1996 scores, but that 12th-grade scores had declined.

In terms of proficiency in science–which the National Assessment Governing Board believes every student is capable of achieving–82 percent of 12th-graders scored below proficient. Seventy-one percent of 4th-graders were below proficient, as were 68 percent of 8th-graders.

“The decline is not huge, but it is statistically significant, and morally significant as well,” said Paige. “After all, twelfth grade scores are the scores that really matter.”

No Ethnic Group Improves Performance

Examination of the test scores by ethnic group–White, Black, Hispanic, Asian/Pacific Islander, and American Indian–revealed none of these subgroups had average scores in 2000 higher than in 1996. However, the NAEP data did show that:

  • Eighth-graders whose teachers majored in science education had higher scores than students whose teachers did not. At fourth grade, there was no relationship.
  • Eighth-graders who took life science had lower scores than students taking earth, integrated science, biology, chemistry, or physics.
  • Fourth-graders who used computers to play learning games had higher scores than those who did not.
  • Eighth-graders who used computers for simulations and analysis also scored higher.

Paige punctured the complacency of suburban parents by pointing out the bad news about student performance was not just a problem confined to poor children in urban schools. Suburban students performed no better than urban students, he noted.

“In fact, it is white students with educated parents and economic advantages in public schools whose scores declined significantly at the twelfth-grade level,” said Paige. “Every group should do better, but the ones we might be complacent about actually have declining scores.”

Providing an additional embarrassment to suburban complacency, Paige pointed out the good news in the science scores was that one set of schools in particular had scored higher than all but one state in 8th-grade science. Those high-performing schools had a student population some would consider “challenging,” he noted:

  • 40 percent are members of a minority group;
  • 50 percent receive free or reduced price lunch;
  • 80 percent have parents who never went to college; and
  • 35 percent switch schools every year.

“I am talking about Department of Defense schools, both domestic and overseas,” said Paige, noting those schools are improving their scores. Twice as many overseas DOD eighth-graders reached the advanced level as in 1996, and their domestic peers increased their average scale score significantly during the same period.

How can DOD schools take diverse, highly mobile groups of students and do so well? (see related article, “Department of Defense Knows How to Operate Good Schools, Too,” page 6.)

“The answer is startlingly simple and familiar,” said the Education Secretary. “They set high standards, they demand accountability, and they encourage parental involvement.” He reminded everyone those were the elements President Bush had included in his education plan.

In addition, the administration was working to address the shortage of teachers by making it easier for qualified professionals to enter the teaching field. For example, the ranks of science teachers, math teachers, and history teachers could be swelled each year from the thousands of Americans in their twenties or thirties who are finishing a tour in the military and who majored and worked in technical fields.

For more information . . .

“The Nation’s Report Card: Science 2000,” is available from the National Assessment of Educational Progress at the National Center for Education Statistics Web site at http://nces.ed.gov/nationsreportcard/.

George A. Clowes, “U.S. 12th Graders Flunk International Math, Science Test,” School Reform News, April 1998, http://www.heartland.org/education/apr98/flunk.htm.