The Consequences of Poor Science Education in Kindergarten

When children start kindergarten, sizable gaps in science knowledge already exist between whites and minorities—as well as between youngsters from upper-income and low-income families. And those disparities often deepen into significant achievement gaps by the end of eighth grade if they aren’t addressed during elementary school.

These are some of the findings in a new report by researchers from Pennsylvania State University and the University of California, Irvine. The study, published this week in an American Educational Research Association journal, tracked 7,757 children from the start of kindergarten to the end of eighth grade, providing a rare glimpse into the state of science knowledge of America’s youngest students.

The findings suggest that, in order for the United States to maintain long-term scientific and economic competitiveness in the world, policymakers need to renew efforts to ensure access to high-quality, early learning experiences in childcare settings, pre-schools, and elementary schools. In other words,waiting to address science achievement gaps in middle or high school may be too late.

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“Unfortunately, as the United States experiences greater income inequality, science achievement gaps may be experienced by progressively larger percentages of children,” the report’s authors wrote. “[Those] with low levels of science achievement may be less able as adults to understand public-policy issues necessitating ever-greater scientific literacy and reasoning as well as experience lower employment and prosperity.”

A general-knowledge test administered during kindergarten measured children’s understanding of the physical, biological, and social sciences. The science-related questions focused on two types of knowledge: conceptual understanding, and skills such as asking questions, drawing conclusions and making predictions.

The researchers found that kindergarteners’ general knowledge about the world was the strongest predictor of their knowledge in first grade, and in turn their science achievement in third grade. Of the kids who had low levels of general knowledge in kindergarten, 62 percent were struggling in science by the time they reached third grade. By eighth grade, 54 percent were still struggling.

General-knowledge gaps between ethnic minorities and whites were substantial from the moment students began kindergarten. Fifty-eight percent of black kindergarteners had general-knowledge scores in the bottom quartile across all racial groups combined, along with 40 percent of Hispanics and 52 percent of American Indians. By contrast, only 15 percent of white kindergarteners were in this bottom quartile.

Diverse: Issues in Higher Education.