Science achievement gaps begin before kindergarten

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. -- Academic achievement gaps in the United States are well documented in the upper elementary and middle school grades, with minority and low-income children consistently underperforming their peers. New Penn State research indicates that science achievement gaps may begin earlier than previously thought, before children enter kindergarten.

Paul Morgan, associate professor of education, and his colleagues analyzed data from the Early Childhood Longitudinal Study - Kindergarten Class of 1998-99, a cohort of over 7,500 children who entered kindergarten in 1998. It is the first large-scale, nationally representative, longitudinal cohort of children followed through their elementary and middle school years.

Morgan and his colleagues focused on identifying the factors underlying science achievement gaps in elementary and middle schools. “While they have been frequently observed, science achievement gaps have rarely been explained or examined over time,” he explained.

A joint 2010 report from the National Academy of Sciences and National Academy of Engineering indicated that low levels of science achievement in the United States were no longer a “gathering storm,” but were now “rapidly approaching a Category 5” in their potential to derail the nation’s long-term global competitiveness and economic prosperity.

Morgan looked at children’s general knowledge about the natural, physical, and social sciences, their reading and mathematics achievement, and other factors such as socioeconomic status (SES), race and ethnicity, parenting, and school academic climate. He found large gaps in children’s general knowledge about the world already evident at kindergarten entry. “This is the first time we’ve found evidence of large science achievement gaps at such an early age,” Morgan said.

Some groups of children, including minorities and those of a lower SES, entered kindergarten with far less general knowledge than other groups of children. For example, almost 60 percent of black children began kindergarten with low levels of general knowledge, compared to only 15 percent of white children. About 65 percent of kindergarten children from low SES families displayed low levels of general knowledge, while only 10 percent of those from higher SES families did so.

“Our study found that there were already large gaps in children’s general knowledge as they began kindergarten, which resulted in large gaps at the end of first grade,” Morgan said. “These general knowledge gaps in first grade strongly predicted science achievement gaps from third to eighth grade.”

Morgan found 62 percent of children who began kindergarten with low levels of general knowledge were struggling in science by the end of third grade. He noted that while Asian children were largely able to close the science achievement gap with white children over time, the gap between black and white children actually grew. After third grade, science achievement gaps were largely stable.

According to Morgan, there are many factors that predict children’s science achievement gaps, and most are modifiable. These include children’s general knowledge, as well as their reading and mathematics achievement. “General knowledge gaps likely result from some groups of children having fewer informal opportunities to learn about science before they enter school, including those provided through attending high-quality childcare and preschools. Income inequality and racial segregation then exacerbate science achievement gaps as children continue through elementary and middle school.”

For the United States to retain its long-term scientific and economic competitiveness, policymakers need address these gaps. “Early and sustained intervention efforts should take place before or shortly after children begin kindergarten, and policies may also need to address the increasing income inequality and racial segregation in the U.S.,” said Morgan.

Other interventions may include parents regularly talking and interacting with young children about physical, natural, and social events and promoting their general knowledge about the world through play to take full advantage of the science instruction they receive in school. “If we want to ensure equal education opportunities, as well as the country’s competitiveness, then we need to support children who begin school already struggling. Too often, where you start is where you’ll end,” Morgan explained.

The results of the study were published in the February online edition of Educational Researcher published by the American Educational Research Association. Other researchers on the project include George Farkas, professor of education and sociology at the University of California at Irvine; Marianne Hillemeier, department head and professor of health policy and administration at Penn State; and Steve Maczuga, research programmer/analyst at the Population Research Institute at Penn State. It is the first in a series of studies being supported by the U.S. Department of Education’s Institute of Education Sciences and Penn State’s Social Science Research Institute.

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Last Updated February 25, 2016