WASHINGTON -- Elementary school children have made gains in science, based on the first national test in five years, but students in middle and high school have not escaped their rut.
The lackluster performance by older children underscores the deep concern among political and business leaders who see eroding science achievement as a threat to the US economy.
A more hopeful sign is that young children are getting better at earth, physical, and life sciences, according to test scores released yesterday. That improvement was made even as their schools tend to focus on math and reading, subjects targeted by federal education law.
The 2005 science scores are from the National Assessment of Educational Progress, a federal test given periodically in a range of topics. It is considered the best measure of how students perform over time and of how one state stacks up against another.
Black and Hispanic students narrowed their achievement gap with white students in fourth grade. But racial gaps did not shrink in eighth grade, and the gap between blacks and whites widened in 12th grade.
Overall science scores mirrored a recent pattern in other subjects: Elementary school children improve, middle school students do not, and high school students also stagnate or slip.
``It's perplexing," said Darvin Winick, chairman of the independent National Assessment Governing Board, which oversees the test. ``Almost everybody is on the high school reform bandwagon now, and all this report should do is fuel that fire a little more."
The 12th-grade scores have not changed since the science test was last given in 2000. But they have dropped over a 10-year testing period, the only grade to see that slip.
The goal is for all students to show they can handle challenging subject matter, a skill level known as proficient. In grades 4 and 8, fewer than 1 in 3 students -- 29 percent -- achieved that level or better. Only 18 percent of 12th-graders did that well.
Fourth-graders posted a better overall test score in science compared with 2000. The lowest-performing students made the gains, lifting the overall score. The states posting the highest number of children rated as proficient include Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Vermont, Montana, North Dakota, and Virginia.
In New Hampshire, 83 percent of fourth-graders scored at the basic level or better -- the highest in the nation; in Massachusetts, 79 percent showed basic skills . New Hampshire and Montana tied with 37 percent scoring at the proficient level. Only Massachusetts and Vermont scored higher, with 38 percent proficient.
In eighth grade, New Hampshire was one of four states in which 76 percent of pupils scored basic or better and 41 percent scored as proficient. North Dakota led the nation, with 77 percent achieving scores of basic or better and 43 percent demonstrating proficiency. In Massachusetts, 72 percent showed basic skills and 41 percent were rated proficient .
Boys outperformed girls in every grade tested.
Among states with the lowest percentages of children doing proficient work are Alabama, Arizona, California, Hawaii, Louisiana, New Mexico, Nevada, and Mississippi. The test is voluntary for states; Alaska, Iowa, Kansas, Nebraska, New York, and Pennsylvania, along with the District of Columbia did not participate.