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The Consequences of Poor Science Education in Kindergarten

A majority of low-income and minority kindergarteners come in with poor general science knowledge—and closing that gap may be crucial for ensuring academic success later on.
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.
“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.
Meanwhile, about 65 percent of low-income children, regardless of race, entered kindergarten with low levels of general knowledge, compared with only 10 percent of upper-income children.
“We were dismayed by how early the [knowledge] gaps emerged,” said Paul Morgan, a Penn State associate professor of education-policy studies and the report’s lead author. “Our findings argue for the importance of intervening early, particularly for children who may be at risk.”
Morgan and his colleagues found that lower socioeconomic status may play a particularly important role in explaining science achievement gaps, including those disproportionately experienced by racial, ethnic, and language-minority children.
“Children growing up in [such] families typically experience comparatively fewer early opportunities to learn about the natural and social sciences,” the authors wrote. “Their parents often have lower educational levels and therefore less science knowledge themselves as well as fewer resources available to direct toward the children’s cognitive and academic growth. Children who are racial and ethnic minorities are twice as likely to live in poverty as those who are white. Children raised in poverty often attend poorly resourced and racially segregated schools that further limit their academic opportunities.”
Among the families in the study, parents of third-graders were asked a series of survey questions to determine whether they engaged in specific activities with their child. These activities included reading stories together, playing sports, building things, and visiting a museum or zoo. Parents also were asked if the families subscribed to newspapers or magazines, owned a dictionary or calculator, and whether they had a library card.
Morgan said that, within families, parents who regularly talk and interact with toddlers can point out and explain physical, natural, and social events occurring around them daily. This might help youngsters learn facts and concepts that will prepare them to take better advantage of science instruction they receive during elementary and middle school.
Math and reading achievement were also associated with science achievement during third to eighth grades, which suggests that improving reading and math skills among low-performing children can help address science achievement gaps.