When it comes to student performance in science, Minnesotans are accustomed to being at the head of the class. Test scores of college-bound students here are usually higher than those in other states, and compare favorably internationally.
And yet statewide science test scores released this week show that only four in 10 Minnesota students overall scored at the proficient level.
That shows that local educators and families have work to do on several fronts to improve student performance in science. The recent results also identify some standouts, including schools with proficiency rates ranging from 70 to 96 percent. The success of those programs should offer models for other schools to follow.
In the spring, nearly 185,000 Minnesota students in grades 5, 8 and high school took the Science MCA-II exam that measures student science achievement against state standards. Those standards, designed with state science educators, are intended to define what students should know and be able to do at each grade level. The exam was the first state test taken completely online.
Some of the poor showing might be attributed to students adjusting to the online format. The exam is interactive, allowing students to simulate experiments online. And because the assessment doesn't count toward graduation requirements, some students may have taken it less seriously.
Another problem could be in time spent on science and the way it is taught. A Center on Education Policy study found that nearly 45 percent of districts nationally have cut time from one or more subjects, including science, to put more emphasis on reading and math because of federal No Child Left Behind rules. Other studies indicate that higher-achieving countries forge better links between classroom activities and science concepts.
And in American culture, too many adults feel uncomfortable with math and science concepts -- then pass that fear along to their children. That uneasiness about the subject translates into younger children disengaging from science studies and older ones opting out of science courses as soon as they can.
State students do well in math and science relative to their counterparts in other states. However, their performance is less impressive when with compared students in several Asian nations. Last year, an American Institutes for Research study found that in science only two countries are at the proficient level: Singapore and Taiwan. Twenty countries are one step down at the basic level, including the United States.
Minnesotans can't be content just to outperform other states. Students here must compete with peers from China, India and other parts of the world for jobs in the science field. That's why state efforts to expand science programs and teaching deserve support.