Elementary and Secondary Students' Perceptions Toward Science:
Correlations with Gender, Ethnicity, Ability, Grade, and Science Achievement

M. Faye Neathery
Southwestern Oklahoma State University
Department of Chemistry/Science Education
100 Campus Drive
Weatherford, OK 73096
(405) 774- 7133
e-mail: neathef@swosu.edu


    Attitudes associated with science appear to be affecting student participation in science as a subject (AAAS, 1989; Koballa, Crawley, & Shrigley, 1990) and impacting performance in science (IAEP, 1992; Weiss, 1987; Linn, 1992). An international assessment of nine-and-thirteen-year-old students in twenty countries (IAEP, 1992) revealed that positive attitudes toward science influence student performance. Positive student attitudes toward science were related to higher science performance by the majority of 13-year-old students in 15 countries (IAEP, 1992). In Korea there was a notable exception; only one-quarter of the top-performing students exhibited positive attitudes toward science (IAEP, 1992).

    Students in the international assessment were asked to what extent they agreed with the following statements:

Much of what is learned in science is useful in everyday life.

It is important to know some science in order to get a good job.

I am good at science.

My parents are interested in science.

    A significant majority of the twenty countries had positive attitudes about the utility of science learning for both males and females despite a gender performance gap that was prevalent in nearly all of the countries (IAEP, 1992). The performance of males and females was equivalent in only two participating countries, Taiwan and Jordan (IAEP, 1992). In the Russian-speaking schools 74 percent of the students believed science was equally important for males and females (IAEP, 1992). In Korea less than two-thirds of the students believed science was equally important for males and females (IAEP, 1992); this was one of few countries in which fewer than 90 percent of the students perceived science to be equally appropriate for males and females (IAEP, 1992).

    An examination of the major goals for science education reveals a unanimity of opinion that the development of scientific literacy includes the development of positive attitudes toward science (Lederman, 1992; Linn, 1992). One of the goals for school science that underlies the National Science Education Standards (1996) is to educate students who are able to experience the richness and excitement of knowing about and understanding the natural world. This development of positive attitudes toward science is a critical component of science instruction (Gardner, 1991; NAEP, 1987). It is judged imperative that students develop, at an early age, favorable attitudes toward science (NAEP, 1987); and that this favorable orientation be maintained (Anderman & Maehr, 1994; AAAS, 1989).

    Under the publication of the results of the third assessment in science (NAEP, 1978), the nation had a limited systematic report of widespread student sentiments about science (Yager & Penick, 1984). Much of the 1978 report was replicated with another sample, and the data from such reports and continued assessments provide unique opportunities to review student perceptions of science (Hueftle, Rakow & Welch, 1983; NAEP, 1987). Research regarding relationships of attitudes with science achievement consists of studies that have examined the attitudes of students from various perspectives (Cannon & Simpson, 1985; Mullis & Jenkins, 1988; Harms, Bybee, & Yager, 1979). Cannon and Simpson (1985) examined seventh-grade students' attitudes correlated with science achievement scores from a criterion-reference test. The seventh-grade students were enrolled in basic, general, and advanced life science classes. The data from the study revealed a higher correlation between positive attitudes toward science and higher achievement scores for females enrolled in the basic and advanced classes and for males enrolled in general science classes (Cannon & Simpson, 1985).

    Another study assessed attitudes of intellectually gifted and average students enrolled in the third, seventh, and eleventh grades (Yager & Yager, 1985). The study revealed significant differences between average and gifted students' attitudes toward the usefulness of science (Yager & Yager, 1985). Barrington and Hendricks (1988) found no gender differences with respect to attitudes toward science with gifted and average students in their study. Research indicates that gender may affect attitudes toward science. Simpson and Oliver (1985) reported that males demonstrated significantly more positive attitudes toward science than females in their study of 4,000 students enrolled in Grades 6 through 10.

    Studies on gender roles and school subjects reveal the avoidance of additional science courses by females ( Maple & Stage, 1991; Archer & McDonald, 1991). Schibeci (1984) reported that females exhibit more positive attitudes toward biology and males toward physics. Current data from the American Association of University Women indicate the need to focus more attention on the development of positive attitudes toward science with females (AAUW, 1992). As females progress through secondary grades, they become less confident of their academic skills; thus, their career aspirations are narrowed (AAUW, 1992; Linn & Hyde, 1989). Data from the National Science Foundation (NSF, 1994) indicate that females comprise 46% of the labor force with only 22% of the scientists being female.

    Race and ethnicity may influence science achievement and attitudes toward science. In the international study (IAEP, 1992), the highest-performing 13-year-old students were those in Korea, Taiwan, and Switzerland; students from seven countries including France, Scotland, Spain, the United States, England, and China performed at the IAEP (1992) average of 67 percent. Mickelson (1990) found in his study an attitude-achievement paradox among black adolescents. Despite low levels of achievement in science, minority students, especially African-Americans, exhibited positive attitudes toward science as a subject (Mickelson, 1990). The African-American students responded that they look forward to science class and that science will be useful to them. This paradox has been reported by other researchers (Clewell & Anderson, 1991).

    From a national survey (Weiss, 1987) student attitudes toward science seem to decline as the students progress through school. Further studies have shown that students maintain a poor attitude toward science, with that attitude declining from the junior to the senior high school (Harms, Bybee, & Yager, 1979; Hofstein & Welch, 1984). The findings from a study of grades four through twelve in three Midwestern cities (James and Smith, 1985) show positive attitudes toward science decreased sharply at the seventh grade.

    The present study focused on the following questions: Do any of the variables of gender, ethnicity, ability, and grade have a relationship with student attitudes toward science as a subject? and Is there a significant relationship between the students' attitudes toward science and science achievement?



    The students participating in the study came from a school system in a community near a major southeastern city. The sample consisted of 711 students selected randomly at the rate of 15 per 100 students from a school population of 5,661 students. The students were enrolled in ability-grouped language arts classes in grades four through eleven. A matrix of criteria including intelligence quotient, achievement test scores, teacher recommendation, and academic performance was used for student placement in ability groups. The sample was 79% Caucasian, 13% Latin American and 8% African and Asian American students. The sample was evenly divided by gender with 376 males and 335 females. The students were represented by 24% elementary students in grades 4 - 5, 41% middle school students in grades 6 - 8, and 35% secondary students in grades 10 - 11. Three ability groups were represented with 21% high ability, 58% average, and 21% low ability.


    The measure of students' achievement was the end-of-year scores on the science subtests of the standardized achievement test, Science Research Associates (SRA) Survey of Basic Skills published by Science Research Associates. The contents of the science subtests of the SRA are based on learner objectives most commonly taught in science courses in the United States. The normal curve equivalent scores (NCEs) from the science subtests are represented on a scale from 1 to 99 with the difference between two successive scores on the scale having the same meaning throughout the scale.

    To measure elementary and secondary students' perceptions toward science as a subject a modified form of the Osgood Semantic Differential (1957) was used. The evaluative attitudes selected were important/unimportant (S1), valuable/worthless (S2), understandable/confusing (S3), exciting/boring (S4), and easy/hard (S5). The instrument included seven additional adjective pairs that were used as distractors.

    The attitude scores for an individual were determined from the five evaluative scales producing a range of one, negative attitude, to seven, positive attitude. Any score of five or greater represented a positive value for an attitude. The most positive ratings for important, valuable, understandable, exciting, and easy were assigned a value of seven.

    The reliability of 0.90 on the modified Osgood Semantic Differential instrument was substantiated with respect to reproducibility by Osgood, Suci, and Tannebaum (1957). The modified instrument was tested for reliability in a survey involving a time interval of one month prior to the main study. Application of the Fry Readability test yielded a score of fourth grade.


Intercorrelational Analysis of Attitudes

    An intercorrelational analysis applied to the means showed significant relationships with the attitudes toward science and the variables of ability, gender, and grade as seen in Table 2.  Ethnicity did not correlate with any of the attitudes toward science. Gender correlated with only one attitude toward science. Every attitude examined correlated with science achievement.
    Ability correlated with the four attitudes: important (S1), valuable (S2), understandable (S3), and easy (S5). The attitude which did not correlate with ability is exciting (S4). Three of the attitudes toward science correlated with the high ability group; the high ability-grouped students considered science as valuable, understandable, and easy.

Table 2
Correlates of Science Attitudes
Variable                   Science Attitudes
              S1              S2              S3              S4              S5
Ability      -.0898*         .0877**         .0915*          .0212           .1025*
Gender        .0638          .0491           .0690           .1332**         .0511
Ethnicity    -.0406         -.0250           .0558           .0261           .0241
Grade        -.1421**       -.1165**        -.1500**        -.1243**        -.1690**
* Significant beyond .05 level of confidence
** Significant beyond .01 level of confidence
S1 = Important/Unimportant
S2 = Valuable/Worthless
S3 = Understandable/Confusing
S4 = Exciting/Boring
S5 = Easy/Hard

    The Scheffe test was applied to analyze the attitude ratings by ability groups (Table 4). It is worth noting that the students in the low ability group considered science as a subject more important than the students in the average ability group. The students of high ability rated science as more valuable (S2) than students of average ability. The analysis of the attitudes understandable (S3) and easy (S5) showed that the high ability group rated science as more understandable and easier than either the average or low groups (Table 4).

    There was a significant difference in the ratings of one attitude toward science based on gender. The analysis revealed that science was rated as more exciting (S4) by males than females. The significance was beyond the .01 level of confidence as noted in Table 2.

    The intercorrelational analysis showed that there was no difference in the ratings of the attitudes toward science based on ethnicity. Nonminority students in that school system did not significantly rate science more positively nor negatively than the minority students. Minorities represented 21% of the student population. Grade correlated significantly with every attitude toward science as noted in Table 2. The Scheffe test was utilized to identify comparisons between grades.

    Grade comparisons of the attitude important (S1) indicated that students in grades four, five, and six rated science as a more important subject than the students enrolled in grades nine, ten and eleven. The students in grades four, five and six rated science as more valuable (S2) and understandable (S3) than the students in grade eleven.

    The students in grades four and five rated science as an exciting subject. Data from the Scheffe test revealed that the students in grades six, seven and eight rated science as more exciting than the students in grade eleven. The students in grades four and five considered science as an easier subject than the students in grades ten and eleven.

Science Achievement

    Performance data on the science subtests of the SRA standardized achievement test are presented in Table 1; every grade as a unit performed above the national mean, 50. The high ability groups in every grade scored approximately twenty points above the national mean on the science subtests of the SRA.

Table 1
Science Achievement Test Scores from the Science Research Associates:
Survey of Basic Skills
Grade                Grade Achievement            Ability Groups
                                             Low       Average    High

4                         55.35              43.8        55.4     69.5
5                         65.20              62.4        62.5     73.6
6                         53.77              38.1        56.9     67.2
7                         60.18              36.8        62.7     82.3
8                         62.13              35.9        64.5     76.8
9                         57.90              43.5        56.0     73.7
10                        58.74              42.8        53.6     72.9
11                        51.68              -----       51.4     71.0
Reported in Normal Curve Equivalents (NCEs).
Range = 1 - 99

    An analysis of variance showed a significant difference in achievement in science based on ability and grade (see Table 3). These variables correlated significantly with achievement beyond the .01 level of confidence. The analysis indicated that gender and ethnicity did not relate to science achievement.

Table 3
Analysis of Variance of Science Achievement
Variable                SS              F Value          PR>F
Ability                 26120.06        50.00          .0001**
Gender                    502.61         1.92          .1659
Ethnicity                 456.81         1.75          .1865
Grade                    5801.58         3.17          .0022**
** Signifcant beyond the .01 level of confidence

    The Scheffe test applied to the results of achievement among the three ability groups produced significant data as noted in Table 4. The students in the high ability group performed with greater success than the average and low ability groups. The performance by the high ability group showed a 28.26 difference in mean scores from the performance of the low ability group.

Table 4
Scheffe Test
Grade and Ability Group Comparisons of Science Achievement
Ability Group           Comparisons                     Difference Between Means
1                       3 - 2                                  15.075
2                       3 - 1                                  28.264
3                       2 - 1                                  13.100
F = 3.01007

Grades                  Comparisons                     Difference Between Means
4 - 11                  5 - 4                                  9.856
4 - 11                  5 - 6                                 11.433
4 - 11                  5 - 11                                13.524
4 - 11                  8 - 11                                10.444
F = 2.02414

Multiple Correlation of Attitudes with Science Achievement

    Table 5 reveals the relationship of attitudes toward science with the variable achievement (subtest scores of SRA). The analysis revealed significant correlations; the rating of each attitude toward science significantly correlated with science achievement beyond the .01 level of confidence.

Table 5
Correlates of Science Achievement
Variable                           Correlation with Science Achievement
Science Attitude
(S1) Important/Unimportant                      .1227**
(S2) Valuable/Worthless                         .1935**
(S3) Understandable/Confusing                   .2304**
(S4) Exciting/Boring                            .1874**
 (S5) Easy/Hard                                 .7033**
** Significant beyond .01 level of confidence


    Findings of this study led to the following conclusions, and they must be interpreted with caution.

* Ability and grade significantly correlated with science achievement.

* Gender was not identified as a predictor of science achievement.

* Ethnicity was not a predictor of science achievement. Minorities performed with as much success on the science subtests of the SRA standardized achievement test as the nonminorities for every grade.

* Ability significantly correlated with four of the five attitudes toward science. The students in the high ability group rated science as valuable (S 2), understandable (S 3), and easy (S 5); whereas, the students in the low ability group rated science as important (S 1). The attitude of exciting (S 4) did not correlate with ability.

* Gender significantly correlated with the attitude exciting (S 4); males rated science as a subject more exciting than females.

* Ethnicity did not correlate with any of the five attitudes.

* Grade significantly correlated with each attitude toward science with the elementary grades exhibiting more positive attitudes toward science.

* The students in grades four, five and six considered science as a subject more positively than the students in the secondary grades.

* With multiple correlation, science achievement correlated with attitude toward science.


    There were no significant differences between the attitudes toward science as a subject and gender with one exception. Males rated science as a subject more exciting than females. Conversely, the findings of other researchers show that male students in the United States demonstrate more positive attitudes toward science than do females (Czerniak & Chiarelott, 1984; Kahle, 1983; Schibeci & Riley, 1986). Recent research by AAUW (1992) reveals that although female students receive equal, or sometimes better, grades in science courses, the females exhibit less interest in science subjects than male students. Ethnicity did not correlate with any of the five attitudes toward science as a subject.

    Studies that have examined race, ethnicity, and race report that African-Americans and Latinos enrolled in middle schools responded positively to the importance of mathematics and science (Clewell & Anderson, 1991; Mickelson, 1990; Catsambis, 1994). In science, Latinos exhibit a gender gap with respect to looking forward to science class; Latino males have a more positive attitude toward science than Latino females (Catsambis, 1994). More studies should be conducted at all grade levels to continue the data analysis pertaining to the influence that race and ethnicity have on attitudes toward science as a subject.

    Grade significantly correlated with each attitude toward science; the grade comparisons measured by the Scheffe test indicated that students enrolled in grades four, five, and six perceived science more positively than secondary students. A recent study reports that no significant changes have occurred in the secondary schools at Grade 10, in terms of increasing students' positive attitudes toward science as a subject even though the constructivist and science-technology-society (STC) approaches had been emphasized in that area ( Ebenezer & Zoller, 1993). Studies in the last decade have shown that students maintain a poor attitude toward science, with that attitude declining from the junior to senior high school (Harms, Bybee, & Yager, 1979; Hofstein & Welch, 1984). As reform for preservice education and professional development continues, future studies should reflect the impact of the reform.

    With multiple correlation, science achievement correlated with attitude toward science. Much of the research concerning attitude toward science and its relationship to science achievement shows low positive correlations (Schibeci & Riley, 1986; Keeves & Morganstern, 1992). Early research by Eisenhardt (1977) found that the predominant causal sequence was that a change in achievement causes a change in interest level. Further research examining psychological effects found that a student's self-concept of his ability to perform in science positively correlated with achievement (Oliver & Simpson, 1988). Further investigations should provide more evidence that science educators will be able to use in course revisions with respect to instructional strategies.

    A dimension worth studying is the question of how the affective relationship is fostered in science instruction (Lederman, 1992; Haladyna & Shaughnessy, 1982). Research studies on teacher behavior patterns that promote cognitive and affective domains of science could provide data to be used with professional development models (Smith, 1990).


    American Association for the Advancement of Science. (1989). Project 2061:Science for all Americans. Washington, DC: Author.

    American Association of University Women Educational Foundation. (1992). How schools shortchange girls: Executive summary. Washington, DC: Author.

    Anderman, E.M., & Maehr, M.L. (1994). Motivation and schooling in the middle grades. Review of Educational Research, 64, 287-309.

    Archer, J., & McDonald, M. (1991). Gender roles and school subjects in adolescent girls. Educational Research, 33, 55-64.

    Barrington, B.L., & Hendricks, B. (1988). Attitudes toward science and science knowledge of intellectually gifted and average students in third, seventh, and eleventh grades. Journal of Research in Science Teaching, 25, 679-687.

    Cannon, R.K., & Simpson, R.D. (1985). Relationships among attitude, motivation and achievement of ability grouped, seventh-grade life science students. Science Education, 69 (2), 103-223.

    Catsambis, S. (1994). The path to math: Gender and racial-ethnic differences in mathematics participation from middle school to high school. Sociology of Education, 67, 199-215.

    Czerniak, C. & Chiarelott, L. (1984). Science anxiety: An investigation of science achievement, sex and grade level factors. ERIC: No. ED 243 672.

    Clewell, B.C., & Anderson, B. (1991). Women of color in mathematics, science, and engineering: A review of literature.Washington, DC: Center for Women Policy Studies.

    Ebenezer, J. V. & Zoller, U. (1993). Grade 10 Students' perceptions of and attitudes toward science teaching and school science. Journal of Research in Science Teaching. 30 (2) 175-186,

    Eisenhardt, W.B. (1977). A search for the predominant causal sequence in the interrelationship of interest in academic subjects and academic achievement. Dissertation Abstracts International, 37, 4225A.

    Gardner, H. (1991). The unschooled mind: How children think and how schools should teach. New York: Basic Books.

    Haladyna, T., & Shaughnessy, J. (1982). Attitude toward science: A review.Science Education, 66 (4), 547-563.

    Harms, N., Bybee, R., & Yager, R.E. (1979). Science and society: A review of NAEP data with implication for policies and researcher interpretative summary. Denver, CO: National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP).

    Hofstein, A., & Welch, W.W. (1984). The stability of attitudes towards science between junior and senior high school. Research in Science and Technological Education, 2, 124-138.

    Hueftle, S.J., Rakow, S., & Welch, W.W. (1983). Images of science: A summary of the results from the 1981- 82 national assessment in science. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Science Assessment and Research Project.

    International Assessment of Educational Progress.(1992). Learning Science.Princeton, NJ: Educational Testing Service.

    James, R. K., & Smith, S. (1985). Alienation of students from science in grades 4 - 12. Science Education, 70 (2), 39-45.

    Kahle, J.B. (1983). The disadvantaged majority: Science education for women. (ERIC Document Reproduction Service  No. ED 242 561)

    Keeves, J.P. & Morgenstern, C. (1992). Attitudes towards science: Measures and effects. In J. P. Keeves (Ed.), The IEA Study of Science III: Changes in science education and achievement: 1970-1984, (pp. 122-140). New York: Pergamon.

    Koballa, Jr., T. R., Crawley, F. E., & Shrigley, R. L. (1990). A summary of science education-1988. Science Education, 74 (3), 369-381.

    Lederman, N. (1992). Students' and teachers' conceptions of the nature of science: A review of the research. Journal of Research in Science Teaching, 29, 331-359.

    Linn, M.C. (1992). Science education reform: Building the research base.Journal of Research in Science Teaching, 29, 821-840.

    Linn, M.C., & Hyde, J.S, (1989). Gender, mathematics, and science. Educational Researcher, 18, 17-19.

    Maple, S.A., & Stage, F. K. (1991). Influences on the choice of math/science major by gender and ethnicity. American Educational Research Journal, 28 (1), 37-60.

    Mickelson, R.A. (1990). The attitude-achievement paradox among black adolescents. Sociology of Education, 63, 44-61.

    Mullis, J.V.S., & Jenkins, L.B. (Eds.). (1988). Science learning matters: An overview of the science report card. Princeton, NJ: Educational Testing Service.

    National Assessment of Educational Progress. (1978). Report of the 1977 national survey of science, mathematics, and social studies education. Princeton, NJ: Educational Testing Service.

    National Assessment of Educational Progress. (1987). Science objectives: 1985-86 assessment. Princeton, NJ: Educational Testing Service.

    National Science Foundation. (1994). Women, minorities, and persons with disabilities in science and engineering. Washington, DC: Author.

    National science education standards. (1996). Washington, DC: National Academy Press.

    Oliver, J.S., Simpson, R. D. (1988). Influences of attitude toward science, achievement, motivation, and science self-concept on achievement in science: A longitudinal study.Science Education. 72, 143-155.

    Osgood, C. E., Suci, G. J., & Tannebaum, P.H. (1957). The measurement of meaning. Urbana: University of Illinois Press.

    Raizen, S.A. (1991). The State of Science Education. Science education in the United States: Issues, crises and priorities. (Eds.) S.K. Majumdar et al. Easton, PA: Pennsyvania Academy of Science.

    Rutherford, F.J., & Ahlgren, A. (1990). Science for all Americans. New York: Oxford Press.

    Schibeci, R.A.(1984). Attitudes to science: An update. Studies in Science Education, 11, 26-59.

    Schibeci, R.A., & Riley, J.P., II. (1986). Influence of students' background and perceptions on science attitudes and achievement. Journal of Research in Science Teaching, 23, 177-187.

    Smith, E.L. (1990). Implications of teachers' conceptions of science teaching and learning.  What research says to the science teacher: The process of knowing. (Ed.) Mary Budd Rowe. Washington, DC: National Science Teachers Association.

    Weiss, I.R. (1987). Report of the 1985-86 national survey of science and mathematics education. Research Triangle Park, NC: Research Triangle Institute.

    Yager, R.E., & Penick, J.E. (1984). Student perceptions of science teachers, classes and course content. Science Education, 68, 143-152.

    Yager, R.E., & Yager, S.O. (1985). Change in perceptions of science for third, seventh and eleventh grade students. Journal of Research in Science Teaching, 22, 347-358.
 About the author. . .
    Dr. M. Faye Neathery serves Southwestern Oklahoma State University as an Assistant Professor of Science Education and Master-Teacher-In-Residence for the Oklahoma-Teacher Education Collaborative (O-TEC), the National Science Foundation grant involving nine universities in Oklahoma. Previously, Dr. Neathery was an assistant professor at the University of Mobile, Alabama.  She was the principal investigator of an Eisenhower Mathematics and Science Education grant "Habitats and Their Conservation".  In 1992, Dr. Neathery was recognized as a Presidential Awardee for Excellence in Science Teaching.

To get to the top of this page, click here.

To get back to the current issue of the EJSE, click here.

To get back to the EJSE's Archive page, click here.