The first major release of National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) exam performance since prior to the pandemic shows that fourth grade science scores declined by two points on the 2019 tests compared to 2015 results. The average scores for the fourth and 12th grades showed no change, according to results released recently by the National Assessment Governing Board that administers the NAEP.

Fourth- and eighth-grade score gaps between higher- and lower-performing students have widened. The governing board explains gaps were driven by lower-performing students — a trend seen in recent fourth- and eighth-grade math and reading results.

Some experts say the declining fourth-grade results should be a wake-up call to lawmakers and educators to mandate time for science education during the school day, provide professional development for teachers, and develop equitable funding systems for schools in lower-income areas. The NAEP reading and math exams scheduled for this year have been delayed to 2022.

Public and private schools voluntarily participated in the 2019 NAEP science exams, which measure students’ knowledge in physical, life, and earth and space sciences. A segment of the exams includes measuring students’ responses to interactive tasks. For example, the fourth-grade interactive task questioned students about how dandelion seeds got into a garden.

The drop in fourth graders’ science performance is worrisome to educators and researchers, especially a five-point decrease from the 2015 to 2019 scores for students scoring in the 10th percentile. Also troubling are decreasing science, reading and math scores of various student subgroups in the lowest-performing percentile.

Additional results from the 2019 NAEP science testing found:

  • White and Black students’ scores each fell three points on the 2019 fourth-grade NAEP science exams compared to 2015 results. Hispanic and Asian/Pacific Islander students’ scores had no significant change.
  • All racial and ethnic subgroups of students, except white students, have shown improved performance since 2009.
  • The average fourth-grade science score was lower for students with disabilities in 2019 compared to 2009, but higher for female, Black, Hispanic, Asian/Pacific Islander, American Indian/Alaska Native, students of two or more races, and English learners.
  • Thirty percent of teachers said their fourth-grade students participated in scientific inquiry-related activities “never to once or twice a year.”
  • A larger percentage of Asian and male 12th graders have taken courses in biology, chemistry and physics since eighth grade.