Bay State pupils outperform most in middling US science scores

By Nick Anderson
Washington Post / January 26, 2011

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WASHINGTON — More than two-thirds of the nation’s fourth-graders failed to show proficiency in science in 2009, the federal government reported yesterday, meaning that the average student was likely to be stumped when asked to interpret a temperature graph or explain an example of heat transfer.

Roughly six out of 10 eighth-graders and 12th-graders also fell short of science proficiency on the National Assessment of Educational Progress, a key measure of performance in a subject that President Obama and business leaders call crucial for American competitiveness.

“It’s disappointing,’’ said Francis Eberle, executive director of the National Science Teachers Association. “Essentially, it says that science hasn’t been part of the agenda. Science has had very little attention.’’

But the results had good news for Massachusetts, where fourth-graders tied for first place in science and eighth-graders tied for second, Governor Deval Patrick announced yesterday.

The exam assessed random samples of fourth- and eighth-grade students across the country. Possible scores ranged from 0 to 300. The national average for both grades was 149; both fourth- and eighth-graders in Massachusetts averaged 160.

“These results continue our record of nation-leading student achievement here in Massachusetts,’’ Patrick said.

Education Commissioner Mitchell Chester said there was plenty of work still to be done. “As we look deeper at the results, we are reminded that not all students are performing at a high level in science,’’ Chester said.

State officials pointed out there is a gap between the scores of white and Asian students, on the one hand, and black and Hispanic students on the other, on both the fourth- and eighth-grade tests. A performance gap is also present between disabled and nondisabled students, and English language-learners in both grades scored lower.

Massachusetts fourth-graders tied with New Hampshire, Virginia, North Dakota, Kentucky, Montana, Maine, Minnesota, Ohio, and Iowa. Eighth-graders were bested by North Dakota, but matched Montana, South Dakota, New Hampshire, Minnesota, Wyoming, Maine, Ohio, Utah, Idaho, and Wisconsin.

Globe correspondent Jenna Duncan contributed to this report.