Children in major U.S. cities perform worse than other students around the country on science tests given in elementary and middle school, a snapshot released by the government Wednesday shows.
Ten urban school districts volunteered to take the tests and have their scores compared to public school students nationwide for the first time.
Fourth-graders in nine of the 10 city districts had lower average scores than public school students nationally. The only exception was Austin, Texas, where they performed at the national average.
In eighth grade, all 10 urban districts had average scores below the national average.
The science scores are from the 2005 National Assessment of Educational Progress, a test given nationwide periodically on a range of subjects. It is viewed as the best way to compare student achievement across state and district lines.
Besides Austin, the urban districts that participated in the comparative look were: Atlanta; Boston; Charlotte, N.C.; Chicago; Cleveland; Houston; Los Angeles; New York and San Diego.
The districts enroll a disproportionately large share of minorities, children who have limited English ability, and children from low-income families. Taking this into account, the results showed minorities in the city schools often performed similarly to students with the same backgrounds in the national sample.
The topics covered on the tests include earth science, physics, chemistry and biology.
The new scores emphasize how much room for improvement remains across a range of urban districts — just as is the case for most of the nation’s schools.
Nationally, for example, just a little more than a quarter of students in both grades could handle challenging subject matter — a skill level educators call “proficient”.
Among the city schools, only Austin had about that proportion of students testing at that level in both grades, with Charlotte not far behind.
Cleveland had the smallest percentage of fourth- and eighth-grade students who were proficient — no more than 6 percent.
Fourth-graders working at a proficient level can relate the relative amount of time a candle burns to the amount of air available. Proficient eighth-graders can identify the energy conversions that occur in an electric fan.
Nationally, 34 percent of fourth-graders fell into the bottom achievement category, unable to perform at even a “basic” level. That category also applied to 43 percent of eighth-graders.
The urban districts all had more students in the lowest-scoring category than the nationwide sample.
Chicago and Los Angeles had the most fourth-graders in that group, with 65 percent falling below basic levels.
Atlanta fared the worst among eighth-graders, with 78 percent of students recording below basic scores.
Gerry Wheeler, executive director of the National Science Teacher Association, called the report discouraging.
“There’s no way these young adults are going to be able to survive in this scientific and technological society,” Wheeler said. He cited high teacher turnover and a lack of emphasis on teacher training as problems in urban school districts.
The government could not point to specific trends for the urban group, since this was the first time those cities have volunteered to have their scores put under a microscope.
The national science scores were released earlier this year and showed improvements among elementary school children nationwide in science since 2000, but not among middle and high school students.
“We need to devote more time and energy to science instruction, not just in the cities but nationwide, because nobody has much bragging rights on science performance anywhere in the country,” said Michael Casserly, executive director of the Council of the Great City Schools — a coalition of urban public school systems.
Casserly said the test results demonstrate a need for national standards in science to clarify what students are expected to know. The group also is advocating national standards for reading and math.
Urban students generally also scored lower than students nationwide in reading and math on national tests given last year.
The No Child Left Behind law, which Congress passed in 2001, requires states to administer their own assessments in math and reading, with penalties for schools that fail to improve.
State science testing under the law will begin in the 2007-08 school year, although schools will not face consequences for their performance — something President Bush wants Congress to change.
The new report of lackluster performance underscores a deep concern among political and business executives who see eroding science achievement as a threat to the U.S. economy.