Fewer than half of students proficient in science

“Our nation’s long-term economic prosperity depends on providing a world-class education to all students, especially in mathematics and science,” Duncan said.

Experts pointed to a variety of factors that likely contribute to the lackluster results.

Friedman said one unintended side effect of the No Child Left Behind law has been less emphasis on science, history, arts, and other subjects in order to emphasize performance in math and reading.

Wilkins was skeptical of that explanation, noting that strong reading and math skills are the underpinnings for a strong science education as well. Schools that are doing well in reading and math are also doing well in science, she said.

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“Yes, we have to be intentional about science education, and we have to ensure that all schools have working science labs, but you can’t introduce [students] to a science lab and expect them to do well if they can’t read the text,” she said.

The National Science Teachers Association issued a statement calling the results “completely unacceptable” and suggesting that a lack of funding for science education programs is partly to blame.

“Our nation cannot afford to have a scientifically illiterate workforce,” the organization said. “Having [high] quality teachers is crucial if we want to increase student achievement in science and remain competitive in the global economy of the 21st century. Unfortunately, over the last decade, schools have been forced to reduce funding for teacher training and science classroom resources and even eliminate positions to offset budget constraints. As a result, students are barely able to keep their heads above water in terms of their science education learning.”

Stephen Pruitt, vice president for content, research, and development at Achieve Inc., a nonprofit education reform organization based in Washington, D.C., said the NAEP results show the need for “improved science education grounded in next-generation K-12 science standards.”

He noted that the National Research Council is taking an important step in improving science education by drafting a conceptual science framework. A draft framework was released for public comment last summer, and the final framework is expected to be released this spring.

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