Our report finds that, overall, Americans with more formal education fare better on science-related questions. Whites are more likely than blacks and Hispanics to hold abachelor’s or advanced degree and whites also make up a larger share of science and engineering bachelor’s degree recipients. Some 63% of science and engineering degrees awarded in 2011 went to white students, compared with roughly 10% to Hispanics and 9% to blacks, according to a report by the National Science Board.
But there’s evidence that differences among racial and ethnic groups are seen at the elementary and high school level, too. Although achievement test gaps have narrowed somewhat over time, in general, black and Hispanic students continue to perform lower than whites and Asians on standardized tests. For example, among eighth graders, the average science score on the 2011 National Assessment of Educational Progress test was 152. Blacks’ and Hispanics’ average scores are lower, 129 and 137, while whites (163) and Asians and Pacific Islanders (159) fared better than the national average. According to another report, black and Hispanic high school students also are less likely than whites or Asians to take advanced science courses.
Mark Berends, a sociology professor at the University of Notre Dame, said if performance gaps persist throughout students’ academic careers, it follows that you could see disparities persist in higher education, employment and knowledge of certain subjects. Berends also explained that parents’ comfort level with science may influence how much interest a child shows in the subject. “A parent’s education level and familiarity with scientific subjects help bring kids’ imagination to life,” he said.
Another related factor may be that blacks and Hispanics are less likely to work in scientific fields. That might mean they have less exposure to scientific research and information. Historically, the fields of science, technology, engineering and mathematics have been predominately white and male and there is considerable effort in recent years to create initiatives encouraging a more diverse STEM workforce.
Cheryl Leggon, associate professor in the School of Public Policy at Georgia Institute of Technology, believes that this lack of diversity may influence blacks’ and Hispanics’ interest in science and science careers. “If we see someone that looks like us, then it does have an impact on us, in terms of our interest,” Leggon said. Greater diversity in these fields may give blacks and Hispanics a sense that a career in science could be a viable option for them, she said.
Even with efforts to improve diversity in STEM fields, blacks and Hispanics are consistently underrepresented. According to a 2013 U.S. Census Bureau report, blacks made up 11% of the total workforce in 2011, yet they only occupied 6% of STEM jobs. A similar pattern is seen with Hispanics, who make up 15% of the overall labor force, but held 7% of jobs related to STEM fields.