As schools prepare for the debut this fall of science testing under No Child Left Behind, educators and science advocates are calling for renewed awareness of what many say is a national crisis in science education.

Science-minded educators have lamented that federally mandated math and reading tests have taken valuable class time away from science instruction. Those same educators have voiced hope that science testing under NCLB will bring a renewed focus to instruction in the topic.

States will be required to test students in science once a year in elementary (grades 3-5), middle (grades 6-9), and high schools (grades 10-12). The new rules come at a critical time for the nation, because the science scores of U.S. students on recent national and international benchmark exams have been anything but stellar.

Eighty-two percent of the nation’s 12th graders performed below the proficient level on the 2000 National Assessment of Educational Progress science test. Average scores on the most recent Program for International Student Assessment ranked U.S. students 21st out of 30 industrialized countries in science.

Education groups cite a number of reasons for these disappointing results, including an inordinate number of instructors who are teaching science even though the subject is outside their field of expertise. Some organizations also have produced studies that show school districts have reduced the amount of time they spend on science education since NCLB’s inception.

A spring 2007 study of San Francisco elementary schools conducted by UC Berkeley’s Lawrence Hall of Science and West Ed, a nonprofit research agency, revealed that 80 percent of teachers in those elementary schools reported spending 60 minutes or less on science education each week. Sixteen percent of teachers said they did not spend any time on science.

District representatives who responded to the LHS study reported that a diminishing amount of time has been spent on science teaching since NCLB’s enactment. Districts with schools in Program Improvement (PI) status owing to math and language-arts test results reported having little or no time for science instruction at all.

A 2007 report from the Center on Education Policy, meanwhile, revealed that some school districts have increased the time they spend on math and reading education by more than two hours per week, while cutting time for science, social studies, music, and art by one-third.