Black students significantly trail White students in science subjects, according to a recent national exam.

The test, called the National Assessment of Educational Progress or the “Nation’s Report Card,” quizzes the basic, proficient and advanced scientific knowledge levels of a national sampling of fourth, eighth and 12th graders.

The 2009 results, released earlier this month, indicate a 36-point scoring gap between White and Black students in fourth and eighth grade and a 34 percent gap in 12th grade. The gap is smaller between Whites and Hispanics—33 points in fourth grade, 30 points in eighth grade and 25 points by the 12th grade. Whites outscored Asian/Pacific Islanders in all levels until 12th grade, when Asians took the lead by11 points.

“Low-income and minority students are now the majority in America’s public schools,” said Kati Haycock, president of an advocacy group called The Education Trust. “Regaining our global edge demands that we dramatically boost their skills and knowledge and eliminate – once and for all – the achievement gap.”

Yet Blacks were not the only race demonstrating lackluster science skills. During the test, less than half of all students showed proficiency in scientific concepts consistent with their grade level.

Exam administrators tested roughly 156,000 fourth-graders, 150,000 eighth-graders and 11,000 12th graders to measure their comprehension in physical science, life science and earth and space sciences. The national sample included students from all 50 states and the District of Columbia.

Only one percent of students in fourth grade and two percent of those in eighth grade showed advanced scientific knowledge. Just thirty-four percent of fourth-graders, 30 percent of eighth-graders and 21 percent of twelfth-graders performed at or above the proficient level.

“The results…show that our nation’s students aren’t learning at a rate that will maintain America’s role as an international leader in the sciences,” said U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan. “When only 1 or 2 percent of children score at the advanced levels on NAEP, the next generation will not be ready to be world-class inventors, doctors, and engineers.”

“Our nation’s long-term economic prosperity depends on providing a world-class education to all students, especially in mathematics and science,” he added.

The exam also revealed significant correlations between science knowledge and state location, school type, income level and parental education.

On average, students in northern states outperformed those in southern states in grades 4 and 8. State-by-state was not available for 12th grade.

Fourth and eighth grade students who attended private schools, scored higher than those in public schools and 12th graders in suburban areas performed better than those in city schools. Children in public schools scored 14 points lower overall than those in private schools, specifically in Catholic schools.

Low-income students, who were measured by their eligibility for free or reduced lunch, scored consistently lower than their higher-income peers. Fourth graders who did not qualify for the program scored 23 percent higher than those eligible for reduced lunch, who in turn scored 10 percent higher than those who had free lunch. These numbers were similar in 8th grade.

Higher levels of parent education were also associated with higher science scores.

“Some schools are already doing the hard work to ensure that all students achieve at high levels,” said Haycock. “But in far too many communities, students are still waiting for educators to muster the courage to transform these patterns – and their life trajectories. Our kids – and our country – can wait no longer.”