Science Achievement Gaps

The place of science in the 21st Century cannot be overstated. If equity in education needs to be addressed then achievement gaps in science are worth the attention. A disparity in scientific understanding does not bode well for the future especially with the increasing role of technology in the economy as well as the central role science plays in some of the pressing issues or questions society faces.

Researchers from Harvard and the University of Texas at Austin have recently examined science achievement gaps in great detail. Their work, scheduled to be published in the journal Educational Researcher, looks at the nationally representative data, NCES’s ECLS-K:99, which follow more than 20,000 kindergarteners through eight grade. The primary objective of the work is to quantify science achievement gaps and explain their causes. The study finds numerous gaps in science achievement according to gender and race. These gaps are presented in the first column of the following table.

Above copied from
David M. Quinn and North Cooc. Science Achievement Gaps by Gender and Race/Ethnicity in Elementary and Middle School: Trends and Predictors. Educational Researcher 0013189X15598539, first published on August 5, 2015 as doi:10.3102/0013189X15598539
Column(1) of the above table are the gaps in eight grade. Quinn and Cook have compared these gaps to the ones observed in third grade and find that the gender, Black and Hispanic gaps are quite stable. These gaps therefore exist as early as third grade. The authors then take a "detective" approach in finding the reasons behind these gaps. Under Column(2), poverty is taken into account. The gender gap is obviously not correlated with socio-economic status but both Black and Hispanic gaps are substantially reduced when this factor is taken into account. Column(3) introduces math achievement in fifth grade. This wipes out the gender gap indicating that the difference between girls and boys in science is correlated with their achievements in math. Prior math achievement also reduces substantially both Black and Hispanic gaps and reverses the sign of the Asian gap. White students who perform in math as well as Asian students have higher science achievements. Column(4) factors in reading achievement in fifth grade. This basically works on the premise that students read to learn, thus, challenges in reading comprehension can easily translate to difficulties in science. With this factor, the gender gap actually gets bigger. This is a result of the gender gap in reading being opposite. Both Black and Hispanic gaps are reduced. However, the reduction in the Hispanic gap is much more dramatic indicating perhaps the bigger role of reading challenges within this population. Column(5) takes both reading and math simultaneously and Column(6) combines all three factors; reading, math and socio-economic status. In this last column, gaps remain suggesting that science achievement gaps cannot be fully explained by these three factors. To explain fully the gaps, the authors find that school and classroom effects must be considered. In this mixed bag, how engaging or rigorous a science curriculum is, how equipped science classrooms and laboratories are, and how qualified teachers are show up as the remaining important factors. With these additional influences, the gaps disappear.

The takeaway message that the authors wish to convey in this study is that these gaps exist as early as in third grade. Therefore, interventions aimed at closing gaps should begin when students are young. These gaps are correlated with socio-economic status, math and reading abilities. Narrowing these gaps hence requires addressing these factors.