By SAM DILLON
January 25, 2011
On the most recent nationwide science test, about a third of fourth graders and a fifth of high school seniors scored at or above the proficiency level, according to results released Tuesday.
Only one or two students out of every 100 displayed the level of mastery that the federal panel governing the tests defines as advanced, the government said.
“I was rather dismayed at the relatively lackluster performance at the top of the achievement levels,” said Alan Friedman, a former chief executive of the New York Hall of Science who sits on the board that oversees the federal tests.
The science tests, known as the National Assessment of Education Progress, were administered in early 2009 to about 308,000 fourth graders and eighth graders and 11,000 12th-graders. They tested students’ knowledge and abilities in the physical sciences, life science and earth and space sciences, the government said.
Because the Education Department changed the test since it was last administered in 2005, the latest results cannot be used to determine whether science achievement has risen or declined in recent years.
But the results showed that a smaller proportion of 12th graders demonstrated proficiency in science than in any other subject that the government has tested since 2005 — except history.
Twenty-one percent of the nation’s 12th graders scored at or above the proficient level in science on the 2009 tests, compared with 42 percent who demonstrated proficiency on the most recent economics exam, and 38 percent and 26 percent, respectively, on the most recent nationwide reading and math tests.
The latest science results included state-by-state breakdowns for fourth- and eighth-grade students in 46 states, and for the global system of schools run by the Defense Department. A higher proportion of fourth-grade students scored at or above the proficient level in New Hampshire — 47 percent — than in any other state.
In Montana, 41 percent of eighth graders scored at or above proficiency and 2 percent scored at the advanced level, higher proportions than any other state.
Students in Mississippi ranked last in the tests.
The bipartisan panel that sets policies on the federal tests groups students according to three achievement levels: advanced, proficient and basic.
To be considered proficient in science, fourth-grade students should be able to recognize that gravitational force constantly affects an object, eighth-grade students should be able to relate characteristics of air masses to global regions, and high school seniors should be able to evaluate two methods for helping to control an invasive species, the government said.
A version of this article appeared in print on January 26, 2011, on page A13 of the New York edition.