- The Washington Times - Tuesday, January 25, 2011

In 2005, a report by the National Academies said disinvestment in science education and research could diminish America’s standing on the competitive global stage.

At the start of the current school year, the National Academies warned “the nation’s education system has shown little sign of improvement, particularly in math and science.” On Tuesday morning, results on the national standardized test underscored the issue.

In a report titled “Rising Above the Gathering Storm, Revisited: Rapidly Approaching Category 5,” the National Academies pointed out that American students still rank only in the middle of the pack when compared with their peers abroad and do poorly in applying science and math concepts.

The National Assessment of Educational Progress test (NAEP), which was given to 318,700 fourth-, eighth- and 12th-graders in 47 states, rated students’ competence as basic, proficient or advanced.

Overall, clear majorities of students — 72 percent of fourth-graders, 63 percent of eighth-graders and 60 percent of high-school seniors — proved they had a solid grasp of basic, everyday scientific information, such as explaining the calendar as it relates to the amount of daylight, identifying the cause of certain weather patterns and determining evolutionary relationships.

That’s good news, but when that knowledge “has to be consistently applied, which is the core of proficient achievement, performance is more spotty,” said Mary Frances Taymans, a member of the NAEP’s governing board and a former assistant education superintendent for the Archdiocese of Washington.

“Only about a third can reach this level in fourth grade, and as expectations ratchet upward in grades eight and 12, the proportion of students reaching proficient declines to just slightly over a fifth at 12th grade,” she said.

However, only 1 percent of fourth-graders and 12th-graders, and 2 percent of eighth-graders performed on the advanced achievement level. And overall, U.S. mathematics and science K-12 education ranks 48th out of 133 nations worldwide.

The results were released just hours before President Obama was set to deliver his State of the Union speech before Congress, which will include a focus on education spending.

The reports’ wake-up calls prodded Mr. Obama to push initiatives on STEM, which is shorthand for science, technology, engineering and math learning programs.

But the new national report released Tuesday shows both some bright spots and students continuing to stumble.

The standouts were eighth-graders attending public schools with large military student populations, who tied with students in Montana and North Dakota as the highest-scoring ones in the nation. Black and Hispanic students in Defense Department schools also were high performers.

Also, boys fared better than girls, and Asians and whites outperformed other racial and ethnic groups. In addition, students whose parents had post-secondary educations performed better than those whose parents only had a high-school diploma.

Low expectations and spotty performance cut to the heart of the ongoing discussions about America’s declining scientific prowess, which educators and corporate executives say is undermining the nation’s production of scientists and engineers and putting the U.S. economic future at risk by giving China and India a competitive edge.

The National Academies report also pointed out:

• Forty-nine percent of U.S. adults don’t know how long it takes for the Earth to circle the sun.

• China replaced the United States as the world’s top high-technology exporter.

On Monday, Mr. Obama reiterated his commitment to expand the U.S. science talent pool, announcing that the Defense Department and White House office on science and technology will partner with the privately funded National Math and Science Initiative, which already has programs serving military students in such places as the Fort Hood, Texas, community.

With an estimated 2 million youths with parents on active duty or in the National Guard and reserves, these students deserve special attention, the president said.

“This is not a one-time event,” Mr. Obama said at the East Room announcement. “We will push and advocate. We are going to mobilize the government and private sector.”

But Ms. Taymans said Tuesday that, “despite considerable efforts,” the need for a science-literate America remains acute.

“Without a strong science education for all students, the long-term health of the nation’s economy and of its politics is at risk,” she said. “The new NAEP Science Report Card indicates that despite considerable efforts, there are still considerable deficiencies in the level of science achievement that most of our students have attained.”