Only a small fraction of Baltimore's fourth- and eighth-graders — just one in 20 — can be considered proficient in science, according to the results of a rigorous national test released Thursday.
Baltimore's fourth-graders were just barely ahead of Detroit and Cleveland and the city's eighth-graders were ahead of only Detroit on the National Assessment of Educational Progress test given in 2009. Of the 17 urban districts that participated, Austin, Texas, Jefferson County, Ky., and Charlotte, N.C., were the highest performers.
"If we were administering these tests today, the results would be different," Baltimore schools chief Andrés Alonso said. "But these results are terrible — there's no other way to put it. If I come before you in four years with the same results, I should be fired."
Across the nation, the scores were poorer than expected for all students, whether they were in suburban, rural or urban districts. In large cities, 56 percent of students didn't even score at the basic level, which means they don't have basic knowledge of science skills.
"In Baltimore, 80 percent [of eighth-graders] didn't meet basic, so it is all pretty disappointing," said Alan Friedman, a member of the National Assessment Governing Board, the organization that Congress authorized to run NAEP.
"In general, it is clear that the nation's and the states' science scores are much lower than anyone would have expected, and the city's scores are even lower," said Michael Casserly, executive director of the Council of Great City Schools, a coalition of large urban public schools.
In the past several years, national education leaders have begun focusing attention on the teaching of science, math and engineering in the hope of closing the knowledge gap between graduates in the United States and other countries. And the Obama administration is now pledging to train 10,000 new science teachers every year for the next decade.
Teachers and school leaders have said that in part the problem is the continued emphasis on math and reading that the No Child Left Behind Act has forced on school systems.
Science is not an area that states test, and the subject has sometimes received less attention since the accountability movement began in the past decade. Friedman said NCLB may have resulted in a decline in hours spent on science in classrooms.
Given to students in a variety of subjects, NAEP is considered the most reliable assessment that allows students to be compared from state to state and city to city. The test is given to a sampling of students across the country rather than every child. Students' scores are evaluated as advanced, proficient, basic or below basic.
Of the city's 4,000 eighth-graders, 900 took the test. None scored in the advanced level; 4 percent scored proficient; and 16 percent were basic.
"This test truly measures the skills our kids should have, and if they don't have them, it's going to handicap them," said Alonso, adding that the scores reflect a history of the subject being taught poorly. "If the subject is not being taught, then nobody should be surprised if the kids don't do well."
However, he pointed out that when the city's African-American and poor students were compared with their peers in other urban systems, the results were slightly more promising. For instance, the city's poor, African-American fourth-graders scored ahead of Detroit, Cleveland, Fresno, Calif., and Chicago.
And Maryland State Assessment scores in science have risen significantly in the city between 2007 and 2010. Last year, 34 percent of eighth-graders scored proficient on the test, compared with 26 percent in 2007.