For a nation seeking a rocket boost in science achievement, a new report card doesn’t offer much lift: Only elementary school students’ test scores are on the rise.

Students in middle and high school have not shown any improvement in science over the last five years, according to results from a federal test considered the benchmark of academic progress.

President Bush, Congress, high-tech executives, and top researchers have been trying to create a sense of urgency over science. The disappointing scores might boost their case. Fourth-grade students posted small gains since the federal test was last given in 2000, mostly through improvement by the lowest-performing children, scores released May 24 show.

Federal education officials interpreted the progress as a sign that greater attention to elementary students’ math and reading skills–as demanded by the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) law–also might be helping in science.

Yet the test found students in grades eight and 12 failed to improve at all since 2000 in their knowledge of earth, physical, and life sciences.

High school seniors actually did worse in science when compared with scores of a decade ago. Almost half of the 12th-graders taking the test in 2005 fell short of showing basic science skills.

“We need to get busy. And that starts with ensuring that all students have access to a strong science curriculum and the teachers with the skills and knowledge to teach science well,” said Kati Haycock, director of the Education Trust, which advocates for poor and minority children.

The science scores are from the 2005 National Assessment of Educational Progress, a federal test given periodically on a range of topics. It is considered the best yardstick of how U.S. students perform over time and how states stack up against each other. In a positive step toward a national priority, black and Hispanic students narrowed their achievement gaps with whites in fourth grade. So did poor students compared with richer ones.

That good news was limited. The racial and ethnic achievement gaps did not shrink in eighth grade, and the gap between blacks and whites only got bigger among 12th-graders. Education Secretary Margaret Spellings said the results show why NCLB, which focuses on early and middle grades, should be expanded into high schools. The law requires testing in math and reading, with penalties for many schools that fail to improve. State science testing under the law will begin in 2007-08, although schools will not face consequences for their performance–something Bush wants Congress to change. “The answer is more accountability, not less,” Spellings said.

Science skills have become critical in a huge range of blue-collar and white-collar jobs, and they form the foundation of engineering, technology, medicine, and other leading fields.

On the test, most students in each grade could not handle challenging subject matter. At that skill level, known as proficient, a fourth-grade student can explain what can be learned from fossils. An eighth-grader can identify the location of a cell’s genetic material, and a 12th-grader can design an experiment to compare various heating times. Only 29 percent of students in grades four and eight scored proficient or better, and only 18 percent of 12th-graders did. Larger numbers showed basic skills.

The lackluster performance by older children underscores a deep concern among political and business executives, who see eroding science achievement as a threat to the U.S. economy.

For all the concern at the federal level, however, the rhetoric has not reached the states and classrooms, said Mike Padilla, president of the National Science Teachers Association. “This is where the changes in science teaching and learning are desperately needed,” he said.

Students were challenged to understand the principles of science, use their skills to investigate, and apply science knowledge to solve everyday problems.

Although fourth-graders posted a better overall test score, the percentage of students who could handle challenging work did not improve in fourth grade.