New study shows that gaps in what kids know about the natural and social world in kindergarten persist through middle school.

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Low-income and minority children score much lower on national 8th-grade science tests than their white and more advantaged peers, but those gaps already exist before kids start kindergarten.

Less-advantaged kids are less likely to know, for example, what a fireman does, or explain what trains and planes have in common, or describe the seasons — the kinds of questions they might answer on a general knowledge test given in kindergarten, according to a study published recently in the journal Educational Researcher.

The study found that basic background knowledge about the natural and social world in kindergarten was the best predictor of how well children would perform on science tests in elementary and middle school.

Researchers from Pennsylvania State University and the University of California-Irvine tracked about 7,700 children involved in a large-scale federal study who started kindergarten in 1998, following them through eighth grade.

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They found, for example, that 58 percent of African-American children scored in the bottom 25 percent of a general knowledge test when they entered kindergarten compared with only 15 percent of white children.

About 65 percent of low-income children entered kindergarten with low levels of general knowledge compared with just 10 percent of high-income children.

The gaps between most groups remained and in some cases widened on science tests in third, fifth and eighth grade.

“The gaps are quite sizable at kindergarten entry, so the more that we can offset the gaps prior to kids arriving at school, the better,” said co-author Paul Morgan, an associate professor of education policy studies at Penn State.

Educators have long known that the foundations for reading and math are laid in the first five years, particularly through rich back-and-forth conversations with parents and caregivers that encourage curiosity and deep thinking. Not all kids have the same learning opportunities at home, and the same appears to be true for science.

And previous research has shown that young children are capable of holding up their end of conversations about science , whether it’s reading about farms in a storybook or chatting about the plants and animals they see on a walk in the park.

Science instruction has tended to take a back seat to reading and math in the early grades.

But that may be the best time to address science achievement gaps because “they’re pretty baked in, they’re pretty set by elementary school,” Morgan said.