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It’s a well-established problem that too few blacks and Hispanics, and too few women of all colors, pursue degrees and careers in the sciences. And much research has gone into why minority students aren’t taking as many science classes in high school, and later in college, as their white counterparts do. Wonks call it the “leaky STEM pipeline,” referring to all the students who leave science, technology, engineering and math as they progress through their educational careers.

But a new study indicates that the STEM pipeline might have a giant hole in it far earlier than many of us ever thought:  before kindergarten.

It found that many minority children enter kindergarten with a low level of general knowledge of the world around them, and they tended to falter in science throughout their school years. Five-year olds who were able answer general questions like “What do firemen do?” and “What do planes and trains have in common?” went on to score much better on science tests in the third, fifth and eighth grades. But most who started behind stayed behind. Few caught up.

“We were dismayed by how early these gaps emerge,” said Paul Morgan, a professor at Penn State University and one of four authors of the paper, “Science Achievement Gaps Begin Very Early, Persist, and Are Largely Explained by Modifiable Factors,” published this month in Educational Researcher, a leading peer-reviewed journal.  “They emerge early and they stay stable over time. It’s a loss of human capital.”

Morgan and his colleagues arrived at these conclusions by analyzing a federal dataset of nearly 8,000 students who began kindergarten in 1998, and were tracked through eighth grade. Unfortunately the dataset ends after that, but Morgan said he wouldn’t be surprised if the science achievement gap continued into high school.

The researchers found that a young child’s general knowledge about the physical and social world was much more important in predicting future science achievement than his reading or math scores were. In other words, some children who scored low in math and reading nonetheless scored high in science. And some who did well in math and reading did poorly in science. The link between general knowledge and science isn’t entirely clear. Questions about firefighters and other youngster trivia obviously don’t have much to do with real science. Morgan speculates that young kids who are making observations about the world have the sort of disposition that propels them to understand science better as they get older.

Previous researchers have found similar big achievement gaps between whites and minorities in both reading and math, which also persist through school. But this dataset suggests that the achievement gaps in science are even larger. For example, blacks enter kindergarten with a general knowledge gap that is more than twice the size of their reading gap with whites, and 50 percent larger than their math gap with whites. By eighth grade, the black-white science gap is roughly 20 percent larger than the reading and math gaps.

Another way to look at this data is to see how some racial groups are disproportionately more likely to suffer from low achievement in science. Nearly 60 percent of black students were ranked in the bottom quarter on a kindergarten general knowledge test in 1998. Eight years later, almost 65 percent of blacks scored in the bottom quarter on a science test. Among Hispanics, more than 40 percent were in the bottom quarter in the kindergarten test. By eighth grade, a third of all Hispanic students were still scoring in the bottom quarter in science. For white students, it’s a different picture. Only about 15 percent of whites were in the bottom quarter in kindergarten and eighth grade.

The stark achievement gaps could not be completely explained by family income and educational background. Even between two children of the same income, the black child, on average, scored significantly lower than the white child on both the general knowledge questions and the later science tests. Indeed, this gap between whites and blacks was almost twice as large as the achievement gap between high- and low-income families.

Asians were a stark exception to the thesis that a lack of early general knowledge about the world dooms oneself to lifetime of low science performance. The average Asian child entered kindergarten with a much lower general knowledge score, compared with his white peers.  Yet by third grade the achievement gap between Asians and whites of the same socioeconomic status virtually disappeared. By eighth grade, Asians surpassed whites, after adjusting for socioeconomic status.

There isn’t an easy fix to these science achievement gaps. Because the science gap seems to begin at such a young age, the researchers who detected it call for early exposure to the most basic scientific approaches, such as asking questions and making observations. But Morgan conceded that it isn’t clear how pre-K programs should teach differently, or how community centers should coach parents to promote their little scientists. Certainly, no one wants to see toddlers drilled in general knowledge trivia. “I’m not saying we need to put kids in chairs and do worksheets all day,” said Morgan. “You can instruct kids and it can be playful at the same time.”

We need a lot more research into effective science instruction, especially for low-income minority children.

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