Nearly a third of the state's eighth-graders failed the MCAS science exam last spring, an indication that Governor Mitt Romney's push to make science a graduation requirement would cause thousands of students to fail.
In the state's five largest school systems, more than half of the students flunked the eighth-grade science and technology test, and educators say science instruction lags behind English and math in textbooks, equipment, and teacher training.
Many teachers work in science classrooms with outdated labs and too few textbooks and microscopes.
School leaders differ on whether eighth-grade science scores signal trouble ahead for high school seniors, while state officials say they doubt eighth-graders' performance predicts the future.
School officials say they support increasing the emphasis on science only if the state supplies enough money for teacher training, materials, and tutoring to help students pass the test.
As part of a new education initiative he began promoting last week in his State of the State address, Romney plans to urge the state Board of Education at its meeting Tuesday to agree to add passing MCAS science tests to the state's graduation requirements.
Students now must pass only the math and English exams. His plan is likely to inflame controversy surrounding MCAS, which became a graduation standard in 2003 over the objections of teachers and others.
Ann Reale, a senior policy adviser to the governor, said state education officials have discussed making science a graduation requirement for almost two years, but the education board has yet to act.
"There's no guessing when or if it would have been taken up again," Reale said.
Under a state Department of Education proposal, science has been tentatively scheduled to become a testing requirement starting with the class of 2009 -- this year's eighth-graders. Now, students take only one general science exam in fifth and eighth grades. The state's plan is to give multiple exams to high school students, depending on the courses they take.
This year, the state, on a trial basis, is giving high school students separate exams in biology, chemistry, physics, and engineering and technology. State officials have not yet decided how many tests students would have to pass to meet the science requirement.
While Romney sees the science tests as a way to improve students' preparation for college and careers, school superintendents and others say Massachusetts schools are not ready to immediately make science a high-stakes test.
"I hope he's prepared to put the kind of resources that we're going to need to get our students to that level, particularly in the urban schools," said Eduardo Carballo, superintendent of Holyoke public schools, where 69 percent of the eighth-graders failed the science and technology MCAS last year. "Without that we're just going to be talking about pie in the sky."
James A. Peyser, chairman of the state Board of Education, said per-pupil spending is still much higher than a decade ago, and that school systems should have enough to do the job.
"They are now and should be teaching the subjects at high enough levels for students to pass," Peyser said. "I don't think there should be any quid pro quo here for us to move forward."
Science, foreign language, and history are supposed to be added to the state's graduation requirements under the 1993 education reform law. State and school officials say making science more of a priority will help the state's attempts to grow in fields such as healthcare, computer programming, and biotechnology.
Eighth-grade math scores are about as low as science, with 29 percent failing the MCAS last year, compared with 31 percent -- or about 24,000 students -- who failed science.
But some districts had bigger gaps: in Boston last year, 47 percent of eighth-graders failed math and 63 percent failed science.
Elizabeth Reilinger, chairwoman of the Boston School Committee, supports making MCAS science a graduation requirement but said that the state and local school systems will have to work quickly to assess what schools need to raise science scores, including hiring qualified teachers and stocking science laboratories.
Students tend to do better on tests when stakes are attached, such as whether or not they get a diploma, she said.
"We've seen when it's high-stakes testing students seem to pay more attention to it," Reilinger said. "It's not necessarily a bad thing."
In urban schools, the ability to improve science hinges partly on the outcome of a lawsuit filed by children from poorer school systems against the state seeking more money for schools.
A Superior Court judge's report to the Supreme Judicial Court last year outlined the holes in science classrooms from Brockton to Springfield, finding large numbers of uncertified teachers in middle and high schools, outdated laboratories, and classrooms that did not have enough microscopes and textbooks to go around.
"If you don't have the labs and you don't have the training, it's kind of a chemical equation," said Superintendent James A. Caradonio of Worcester. "You need two parts hydrogen and one part oxygen to get water. Do you have it? No."
Joseph P. Burke, superintendent of schools in Springfield, said school districts across the state are struggling to find enough equipment and qualified science teachers, especially in middle schools.
Meredith Martin, an eighth-grade science teacher at the Patrick F. Gavin Middle School in South Boston, majored in science in college, runs a science fair, and has students do research projects. But the school has only 30 textbooks for 170 eighth-graders.
Yesterday, Martin's eighth-graders presented their science projects to the class.
They unfolded poster boards outlining their hypotheses on everything from the shelf-life of orange juice vs. Pepsi to how colors absorb heat and light.
"I like to experiment on things," Jessica Cardoso, 13, of Dorchester told the class during her presentation.
But afterward, she wrinkled her nose when asked about having to pass MCAS in science to graduate.
"I think it's not fair. That would put more pressure on the students and make them all stressed out," she said. "You won't want to come to school anymore."
At the school last year, 83 percent of the eighth-graders failed the science MCAS.
Some students said they would be more motivated to pass the test if it were a graduation requirement, but they weren't sure everyone could do it.
Ramon Guerrero, 13, of Dorchester said he thinks he could pass the MCAS but worries about his friends. "Some kids might not want to be scientists when they grow up," he said.
David P. Driscoll, state education commissioner, said the MCAS can help test what students learn. Just because a school district requires three years of math, he said, doesn't mean many students are passing it.
"Our job since the reform act is to test students," Driscoll said. "Our system of having standards is the right way to go."