L.A. students’ science scores trail in tests at urban schools

Times Staff Writer

Science scores of Los Angeles students rank at or near the bottom of those in 10 urban centers, according to a government report that offers a somber assessment of science learning in the nation’s largest school districts.

Fourth-graders in Los Angeles ranked with Chicago and Cleveland in the lowest tier of science scores, and performance by eighth-graders topped only Atlanta. Officials cited high poverty rates and a large number of English learners as factors in the Los Angeles rankings, which were culled from Los Angeles Unified School District scores.

The Nation’s Report Card: Trial Urban District Assessment Science 2005 is based on findings of the National Assessment of Educational Progress and compares fourth- and eighth-grade student achievement in 10 large school districts with public school students nationwide.

The other participating districts were San Diego; Atlanta; Austin, Texas; Boston; Charlotte, N.C.; Chicago; Cleveland; Houston; and New York City. Fourth- and eighth-grade students in nine of the 10 cities, with Austin the exception, performed below the national average for all students.


An example of a question posed to eighth-graders was to explain how to find out if a glass contains saltwater. (One way would be by evaporating the water and seeing if salt was left behind.) Thirteen percent of Los Angeles students answered the question correctly compared with 22% of students nationally. Twenty percent of Charlotte fourth-graders provided the right response while 23% of San Diego students answered correctly.

Los Angeles officials said the government assessment did not strictly match California science standards, but nevertheless said the results should serve as a wake-up call.

“There is not a district that anybody would want their kid to be included,” said L.A. Unified school board member David Tokofsky. “We knew the scores were problematic, but this data shows that science in inner city and urban areas has got to be taken up in a major way.”

Tokofsky suggested that the district should begin science instruction in earlier grades and employ specialists and coaches.

Since this is the first assessment of science learning in urban areas, officials could not compare student performance in prior years. Experts, though, say students in the United States generally lag behind their international peers in science knowledge even as the United States and global economies have become more dependent on technology.

The federal No Child Left Behind Act, passed in 2001, mandates that states test students in math and reading, but science testing will not begin until the 2007-08 school year.

All of the participating districts tend to have greater percentages of low-income students, minorities and children with limited English skills than public schools nationally. Significantly, Los Angeles has the largest percentage of English learners (55% of fourth-graders and 33% of eighth-graders) and among the greatest share of students eligible for free or reduced-price lunch.

“Los Angeles is one of the great examples of a school district with lots of factors that research indicates work against higher performance,” said Michael Casserly, executive director of the Council of the Great City Schools, a coalition of urban public school systems, at a press briefing.


State Supt. of Public Instruction Jack O’Connell said in a statement that California must do a better job of training science teachers and providing English learners with fundamental skills.

“For the sake of these children and the future of our state ... it is imperative that we view this information not as a reason to excuse low achievement, but as a call to do a better job in preparing our English learners and disadvantaged students to succeed in the demanding world they face,” he said.