Minnesota has earned a national reputation as a leader in science education. A sharper focus on effective teaching has helped improve science test scores in the past decade, and small numbers of state students do very well on national and international exams.
But that success isn't reaching enough Minnesota kids. A renewed push is needed to encourage student interest in science throughout their K-12 experience.
Statewide science scores released last week showed that only about 48 percent of the 179,000 fifth-graders, eighth-graders and high school students who took the science test this spring were proficient.
That means fewer than half of all state kids met or exceeded state science standards for their grade levels. And though the proficiency rate has inched upward since 2003, it has remained flat the past two years.
In addition, unacceptable disparities between racial and socioeconomic groups persists. Proficiency rates among white students were 54, 52 and 61 percent at the fifth-grade, eighth-grade and high school levels, respectively.
But none of the groups of color had a proficiency rate above 50 percent. And only 28 percent of students who qualify for free and reduced lunch were deemed proficient.
Progress in science seems to have stalled for several reasons, including the push to fulfill federal No Child Left Behind testing requirements in math and reading but not science. With the tighter budgets of recent years, school districts have concentrated their resources in subject areas that count on high-stakes exams.
Three years ago, scores from the Trends in International Math and Science Study showed that students in only four of 36 countries outperformed Minnesotans in fourth-grade math, and only five of 49 countries did better in eighth-grade math.
Clearly, many Minnesota educators have done an excellent job with some students, but the goal should be to close the achievement gap.
Teachers can't do it alone. Families and communities have to get involved, too. Parents need to encourage their kids to take science from the early grades through high school -- whether it's required or not.
A number of encouraging initiatives are underway in Minnesota to improve science education. Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM) efforts sponsored by businesses and educators host summits around the state for students.
A new STEM online portal helps connect educators with businesses that can assist with science education. The Minnesota High Tech Association and some businesses provide scholarships for college students in technical areas. Those efforts deserve support.
In a global society driven by research and technology, science should be every bit as important in school curriculums as reading, writing and math.
Even if they don't choose scientific or technical careers, it's essential for today's students to have a basic grounding. Ongoing debates over issues such as stem cell research and global warming illustrate the importance of science -- and an informed citizenry -- in shaping our future.
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