Science Education and Latino Students
Produced by Iris Chavez, Education Policy Coordinator and Andrew Valent, Education Policy Fellow of the LULAC National Office
The Department of Education recently released the science results for the federally mandated National Assessment for Educational Progress (NAEP) in grades 4, 8, and 12 . The assessment, administered to 156,500 fourth graders, 151,100 eighth graders, and 11,100 twelfth graders, offers valuable insight into students’ understanding of the physical, life, earth, and space sciences. While the update means that we cannot compare 2009 data to earlier assessments, it does offer more current content that can be used for comparison in the future. Inquiry-based thinking and problem solving skills have also been more fully incorporated in an effort to align with current trends.
Although the assessment does not allow the identification of any longitudinal trends, the results do show that Latinos are struggling in relation to their peers. Of 300 possible points, 4th grade Latinos scored an average of 131 compared to 163 for white students; 8th grade Latinos scored 132 while white students averaged 162; and 12th grade Latinos scored 134 compared with 159 for white students. Additionally, 47% of white students scored at or above proficient in grade four while only 14% of Latinos reached the same score. At grade eight, the gap remains high with 42% of white students proficient or above compared to 12% of Hispanic students. In twelfth grade, in general the scores were lower, but Latinos still struggled with 8% at or above proficiency as opposed to 27% of white students and 36% of Asian/Pacific Islander students.
These figures, compounded by the fact that all demographics performed far below expectations and the United States’ mediocre performance on the 2009 Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) , illustrate the need to for improvements in science instruction. The assessment has served as a call to the US education community to improve our system for the economic competitiveness of the nation. In his State of the Union, President Obama highlighted the importance of science and math education in driving innovation and scientific discovery. Referring to our current situation as “our generation’s Sputnik”  moment, he called for 100,000 new Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math (STEM) teachers over the next decade. Obama has been promoting increased attention to STEM since early in his term through his 2011 budget and the federal stimulus package. The recently released President’s budget furthered the administration’s support through an optimistic emphasis on STEM that prioritized three main areas: increasing STEM literacy; improving the quality of math and science teaching; and expanding STEM education and career opportunities for underrepresented groups . It provides $435 million for programs that support the preparation of 100,000 STEM teachers over the next decade. It offers investments in K-12 math and science such as $206 million to support STEM professional development, assessments, and instructional support as well as $300 million for another round of the Investing in Education program. It calls for more than $3 billion for STEM education activities across several federal agencies such as NASA and the National Science Foundation.
The proposal also takes steps to provide smaller pots of funding for programs that specifically support minority students. It provides $35 million to Upward Bound, which offers academic support to low income students in preparation for college attendance. $100 million are also recommended for the Hispanic-serving Institutions STEM and Articulation program, designed to increase the number of Hispanic and other low income students earning degrees in STEM fields .
Obama has also pushed partnerships with the private sector. The Educate to Innovate initiative has sparked collaboration through a non-profit called Change the Equation . The non-profit, which is a coalition of 110 companies, argues that almost all of the 30 fastest growing occupations over the next decade will require a background in STEM literacy.
Despite support from the administration and the private sector, House Republicans have argued for many drastic cuts, including in STEM education. Prior to the President’s release of his 2012 budget recommendations, the House GOP released a proposal for the remaining 2011 budget, which would apply from March 4 through the rest of the 2011 fiscal year. In it, they propose a reduction of $5 billion from the Department of Education’s $64 billion budget in 2010. While President Obama endorses consolidation of various programs, the GOP chose instead to cut many programs such as the Mathematics and Science Partnership, which provides ongoing professional development to math and science teachers.
It is growing increasingly clear that Latino students are underperforming on STEM literacies and that targeted interventions are necessary. The 2010 Education Week Quality Counts survey gave K-12 education a D in stemming STEM diversity amongst women and underrepresented minorities . The Obama 2012 proposal recommended significant steps toward addressing the poor achievement of the Hispanic community. The challenge now lies in convincing Congress that targeted appropriations are necessary.
1. See http://nationsreportcard.gov/about.asp for more details
2. The PISA is an internationally administered test that measures the performance of 15-year-olds in reading literacy, math literacy, and science literacy every three years. The US ranked 17th of the 34 countries of the Organization for the Economic Co-operation and Development.
3. The 1957 Soviet launch of the first satellite, “Sputnik,” prompted the United States to aggressively reform its education system to provide improved science and math instruction in an effort to compete with the Soviet Union.