How well are California’s students doing in science?

Sherrie Thomas, 13, passes out papers in her eighth-grade pre-Advanced Placement science class at Lennox Middle School on August 22, 2013. California's students performed below average on a national science test in 2015, according to results released late Tuesday.
(Gary Friedman / Los Angeles Times)

California has produced some of America’s most celebrated innovators, but its students test below the national average in science, according to a new federal report.

The state’s results on a science test that is periodically administered nationwide also compared poorly with those of most other states — though averages for most states’ public school students were somewhere in the vicinity of half of the test’s top score of 300 points.

The report, released late Tuesday, looks at results of the National Assessment for Educational Progress in science, taken by students in the fourth, eighth and 12th grades last year, and compares them with scores from the last times the tests were administered.


Nationally, results for fourth- and eighth-graders showed statistically significant gains, while 12th-grade scores stagnated.

In California, some measured gains were deemed statistically insignificant because of the size of the samples. But the state’s Latino fourth-graders showed particular improvement.

“We see these results as a promising indicator of progress, but we realize there’s a lot of work to do,” U.S. Secretary of Education John B. King Jr. said of the national results. “We worry that we still are not at a place as a country where we are preparing the future STEM [science, technology, engineering and math] workforce that we need.” Television scientist Bill Nye joined King on a conference call with reporters.

Nationwide, the average score for fourth-graders rose from 150 to 154 out of 300. For eighth-graders, scores rose from 152 to 154.

In 2015, California’s fourth-graders scored 140, on average, and eighth graders scored 143.

“I would be concerned. Obviously the state can do better, because almost all the other states are doing better,” said Tom Loveless, a Sacramento-based senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. “It’s doubtful that it’s due to demographic challenges.”

The National Assessment for Educational Progress (NAEP), administered by the U.S. Department of Education’s research arm, is meant to be rigorous and, officials say, “aspirational.” It is the only such test that allows state-by-state comparison. Students answer questions on physical science, earth and space sciences, or life science.

Of all the ethnic groups tested in California, only Latino students made significant progress — with fourth-grade scores going up from 121 to 128.

California has a large number of students in poverty and English learners, and rankings of test scores often reflect such demographics. But a previous study of testing in other subjects found that California’s scores remain low even when those factors are accounted for.

California is in the process of implementing a new set of expectations for science education, known as the Next Generation Science Standards. Next week, the State Board of Education is slated to adopt a curriculum framework aligned to the standards, which emphasize scientific investigation and creating continuity between different subjects.

New statewide tests aligned to the standards will be administered in a pilot program this spring. Until these exams are fully operational and results become available, though, it’s hard to know how the national assessment results fit into a broader picture of California science education.

Because school districts haven’t yet fully implemented the new California standards, Jessica Sawko, executive director of the California Science Teachers of Association, said she doesn’t put much stock into NAEP scores. After all, she said, the tests might be measuring material that California’s schools plan to teach but aren’t yet teaching.

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