About two-thirds of U.S. fourth-graders failed to show proficiency in science in 2009, the federal government reported Tuesday, meaning that the average student was likely to be stumped when asked to interpret a temperature graph or explain an example of heat transfer.
Seventy percent of eighth-graders and 79 percent of 12th-graders also fell short of science proficiency on the National Assessment of Educational Progress, a key measure of performance in a subject that President Obama and business leaders call crucial for American competitiveness.
"It's disappointing," said Francis Eberle, executive director of the National Science Teachers Association, based in Arlington County. "Essentially, it says that science hasn't been part of the agenda. Science has had very little attention." He said reading and math - the focal areas of most standardized state tests - have squeezed time for science lessons in daily classroom schedules.
Obama has often talked about the importance of science and math instruction, and he made that a theme of his State of the Union address Tuesday night. "If we want innovation to produce jobs in America and not overseas, then we also have to win the race to educate our kids," he said.
Administration officials say the president wants to broaden the curriculum in schools, bringing more focus on science and other subjects, through a revision of the 2002 No Child Left Behind law.
In the new science scores for public and private students, Virginia beat the national average among states for fourth and eighth grades, but Maryland was in the middle of the pack. There were no separate results for the District or state scores for 12th grade. In addition, no comparisons with previous years were possible because the science exams were retooled for 2009.
Still, the data provide a sobering snapshot of scientific performance in U.S. schools early in the 21st century.
There were major achievement gaps among racial and ethnic groups: Black and Hispanic students trailed their white and Asian American peers by 20 to 30 points on a 300-point scale.
There was a gender gap at all three grade levels, widest among older students: The average score for 12th-grade boys was 153; for 12th-grade girls, 147.
Many students failed to reach a basic level of achievement. Performance was judged as advanced, proficient, basic or below basic.
Examples of basic skills: A fourth-grader should be able to explain the benefit of an adaptation for an organism, an eighth-grader should be able to relate oxygen level to atmospheric conditions at higher elevations, and a 12th-grader should be able to solve a design problem related to the electrical force between objects.
Among fourth-graders, 28 percent scored below basic. Among eighth-graders, 37 percent fell short of that level. Among 12th-graders, 40 percent fell short.
The federal test sampled performances of 156,500 fourth-graders and 151,100 eighth-graders to obtain national and state results. It also sampled 11,100 12th-graders for national results. No scores were available for the District, Alaska, Nebraska, Kansas or Vermont.
Among states with the highest average scores in fourth grade were New Hampshire, Virginia, North Dakota, Kentucky, Montana and Maine. In eighth-grade, the top performers included North Dakota, South Dakota, New Hampshire and Massachusetts.