Science scores show bruise on education’s apple


Minnesota schools need to produce high-quality scientists and mathematicians to fuel the state’s growing high-tech economy.

While Minnesota students topped the nation in overall recent American College Testing (ACT) scores, they also performed poorly in science.

Measured by ACT “benchmark” scores, which predict the percentage of students who have a 75 percent chance of earning at least a C in the subject in college, Minnesota students did well in two subjects — 78 percent in English composition and 62 percent in reading. But only 56 percent reached the math benchmark and 38 percent met the mark in science.

The situation is no better in surrounding states: 37 percent hit the science benchmark in Wisconsin, 36 percent in Iowa.

But this is especially troubling in Minnesota, which needs a well trained pool of job candidates for its high-tech industry. Looking ahead to 2014, the state Department of Employment and Economic Development predicts:

A 31 percent increase in computer and mathematics-related jobs,
An 18.6 percent rise in life, physical, and social science jobs,
A 24.7 percent rise in health care practitioners and technical jobs,
An 11.6 percent rise in education, training and library jobs.

“The market is remarkably robust,” said Eric Jolly, president of the Science Museum of Minnesota. But it needs workers who excel in science.

Jolly ticks off several reasons why high school science performance lags behind other subject areas.

No Child Left Behind initially focused on reading and writing. Test scores in these areas are routinely high. Math has been tested for several years, and science tests are just now ramping up. ACT scores tend to rise after teachers prepare students to do well on the NCLB-mandated tests, Jolly said.

Meanwhile, funding cutbacks have starved some school districts so severely that they have cut lab equipment out of their budgets. Students who learn without proper equipment get an incomplete education, Jolly said.

He also takes issue with state programs that allow teachers into science classrooms without proper training. In 2006, the Minnesota Department of Education issued 561 waivers and variances that allowed science classes to be taught by teachers and community members not certified to teach the class.

Meanwhile, lawmakers and the governor are trying to beef up the math and science curricula in the school system. They have added mandatory math classes to the middle and high school curricula and made more advanced math and science classes available in high schools.

The state has also begun the Science, Technology, Engineering and Math program, a government-business partnership that encourages students to study in these areas with high standards.

Community organizations such as the Science Museum of Minnesota work to keep students interested in science. “If you get the kids excited about science and keep them excited, then they’ll stay interested in science,” Jolly said.

Minnesota industry relies on well-trained scientists. Without them, our high-tech businesses will import workers or export jobs. Lagging ACT benchmark scores in science and math are a wake-up call for our schools, the economy and hopefully, the Minnesota Department of Education.