Science Education on the Nation’s Mind

Last week was a big week for science education.  Results of NCES’ Science 2009: National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) at Grades 4, 8, and 12 were released; in his State of the Union speech, President Obama suggested that we are in the equivalent of “our generation’s Sputnik moment;" and the nation remembered Christa McAuliffe 25 years after she perished in the explosion of the Challenger.

The downside:  Of the 11,100 twelfth graders in the U.S. who took the NAEP science assessment, less than a quarter scored “proficient” or above.[1]

  • 21% of 12th graders scored “proficient” or above, and 1% scored “advanced.”
  • 40% of 12th graders scored below the “basic” level.

Some commentators argue that the dismal science scores are just the latest evidence that the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) Act’s focus on mathematics and reading has harmed science education across the nation.  Other evidence these commentators cite includes flat-lining science scores on the 2007 Third International Math and Science Study (TIMSS) and the smallest growth rate in people entering science and engineering jobs since the National Science Foundation began tracking the data in the 1950s.

Causal connections are tough to make, however, as it is not so clear that a NCLB-inspired focus on reading and mathematics has pushed out science education at the high school level.  Over the past decade, at least 26 states have increased the number of science courses that students must take to graduate and most amendments to the science requirements also call for some or all of the mandatory science units to be lab-based.[2]

The upside:  The Obama administration is making science a national priority.

Whatever the cause of the flattening in science achievement, it is clear that science education is a priority of the Obama administration moving forward.

  • President Obama’s 2011 budget asks for $1 billion (a 40% increase) to improve STEM education in K-12.
  • Under President Obama’s Educate to Innovate campaign, the federal government has partnered with leading companies, foundations, non-profits, and science and engineering societies to use private sector dollars to increase interest in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM).
  • The U.S. Department of Education gave states bonus points for including STEM in their Race to the Top grant applications.

In the coming weeks, the National High School Center will be tracking how policy makers promote and high schools provide higher-level science courses[3]; how Congress and high schools interpret the administration’s call for a “complete education;” and what the 2009 NAEP science report can tell us about the performance of student subgroups[4] and learning environments.


Note: This blog post was originally authored under the auspices of the National High School Center at the American Institutes for Research (AIR). The National High School Center’s blog, High School Matters, which ran until March 2013, provided an objective perspective on the latest research, issues, and events that affected high school improvement. The CCRS Center plans to continue relevant work originally developed under the National High School Center grant. National High School Center blog posts that pertain to CCRS Center issues are included on this website as a resource to our stakeholders.

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