About 22 percent of California’s eighth-graders tested on a national science test passed, ranking the Golden State among the worst in the nation, according to figures released Thursday.
Scores from the 2011 National Assessment of Educational Progress, also known as the Nation’s Report Card, show that too few students have the skills that could lead to careers in the field, educators said.
Nationally, 31 percent of eighth-graders who were tested scored proficient or advanced. Both the national and state scores improved slightly over scores from two years ago, the last time the test was administered.
The state ranked 47th, only above Mississippi, Alabama and the District of Columbia, in a tie with Hawaii. But many local educators call into question the significance of the results, saying that the small sample size and other factors can skew the results.
About 120,000 U.S. students were tested in the exams administered last school year, including about 14,000 of California’s 470,000 eighth-graders. Scores were not broken down beyond the state level. In Orange County, fewer than 100 students typically take the test each year.
“The sample sizes for these tests are generally somewhat small to make any real sense out of them,” county Superintendent William Habermehl said. “Also, most of these students tested in California come from large urban districts, so it’s not always an accurate representation.”
Other standardized tests administered nationally, like the SAT, ACT and Advanced Placement, consistently show students in Orange County outscoring their peers in the state and nationally. California’s rankings on those tests are also generally higher than they were for Thursday's Report Card scores.
The science exams are part of a national testing program mandated by Congress. The program also tests fourth-, eighth- and twelfth-graders students in math, reading and other subjects.
The exams measure knowledge and understanding of physical, life, Earth and space sciences.
Students were asked to identify chemically similar elements on the periodic table, name a function of the human organ system and explain the effects of human land use on wildlife.
In California, eighth-grade students are only taught in physical science, not in Earth or space sciences – another reason why they would struggle more, officials said.
The Obama administration has pushed states to adopt national common education standards to better gauge how public schools are performing. The president has said that once states follow a common curriculum, officials can work to develop a uniform testing system in English, math, science and other core subjects.
Still, Habermehl said the results show all students need a stronger focus on science education.
“We just don’t teach enough science,” he said. “In elementary school, science education is often just an hour a week.
Other experts said there are a variety of factors that likely contribute to the lackluster results. Many blame the results as an unintended side effect of the federal No Child Left Behind law, which puts more emphasis on math and reading than it does on science, history, arts and other subjects.
Maureen Allen, chair of the Orange County Science Teachers Association, is working with other groups to build a local network of colleges, schools and local business to create programs and services that promote science education.
“We are looking at a lot of different ways to carry students forward into the 21st century,” said Allen. “Science, technology, engineering and math are where most of the jobs will be in the future. We don’t want every child to become a scientist, but we want them to be prepared to make that choice if they want.”