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Third of U.S. students may not grasp science

At least one of three students from fourth grade on up lacks a basic understanding of science, the National Assessment Governing Board said Tuesday in a report card on the nation's schools.

Forty-three percent of high school seniors had a below-grade-level knowledge of science, the board said. Nearly 40 percent of eighth-graders lacked a basic understanding of the subject appropriate to their level; for fourth-graders, it was 33 percent.Only 3 percent of students at all of those grades performed at what was considered an advanced level.

Mark Musick, board chairman, said the science test results reflected a pattern appearing in other national subject tests.

"Most students have a grasp of basic factual knowledge and procedures, but a disturbing proportion are below that basic level," he said.

The board was created by Congress to monitor the progress of American students in five major subjects - science, math, reading, U.S. history and geography.

The results announced Tuesday by the group were based on science tests administered last year to 130,000 fourth-, eighth- and 12th-graders. Those results were released earlier this year but were incomplete at the time because they lacked standards to determine what scores should be considered basic, proficient or advanced.

Fred Johnson, president of the National Science Teachers Association, said the science figures painted a disappointing but realistic snapshot of the state of U.S. schooling in the sciences.

"The achievement results show us very clearly that the students of this nation are not where they should be if we expect them to grow into scientifically literate adults," he said.

Johnson said educators could do more to change the trend by providing their science teachers with additional opportunities to improve and update their professional skills throughout their career.

The science test differed from past subject tests because it required hands-on experiments and more written explanation of answers. Twenty percent of questions were multiple choice, about one-fourth their usual share, and the test took 90 minutes instead of an hour to complete.

Test results were broken out by state, race, sex, poverty level, for public and private schools, and other categories.

Students in the Northeast and Central states outperformed those in the West and Southeast. Whites outperformed blacks and Hispanics. The poor did poorly.

Boys slightly outperformed girls in the 12th grade but not in the earlier grades, suggesting as other tests have done that the gender gap on science achievement is narrowing.