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U.S. State Science Standards Are “Mediocre to Awful”

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.


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How state science standards stack up, according to a new report from The Fordham Institute

A new report from the Thomas B. Fordham Institute paints a grim picture of state science standards across the United States. But it also reveals some intriguing details about exactly what’s going wrong with the way many American students are learning science.

Standards are the foundation upon which educators build curricula, write textbooks and train teachers– they often take the form of a list of facts and skills that students must master at each grade level. Each state is free to formulate its own standards, and numerous studies have found that high standards are a first step on the road to high student achievement. “A majority of the states’ standards remain mediocre to awful,” write the authors of the report. Only one state, California, plus the District of Columbia, earned straight A’s. Indiana, Massachusetts, South Carolina and Virginia each scored an A-, and a band of states in and around the northwest, including Oregon, Idaho, Montana and Nebraska, scored F’s. (For any New Yorkers reading this, our standards earned a respectable B+, plus the honor of having “some of the most elegant writing of any science standards document”).

What exactly is going wrong? The study’s lead authors identified four main factors: an undermining of evolution, vague goals, not enough guidance for teachers on how to integrate the history of science and the concept of scientific inquiry into their lessons, and not enough math instruction.

Let’s take these one by one. For evolution, the report points out that eight anti-evolution bills were introduced in six state legislatures last year. This year, two similar bills were pre-filed in New Hampshire and one in Indiana.  ”And these tactics are far more subtle than they once were,” write the authors. “Missouri, for example, has asterisked all ‘controversial’ evolution content in the standards and relegated it to a voluntary curriculum that will not be assessed … Tennessee includes evolution only in an elective high school course (not the basic high school biology course).” Maryland, according to the report, includes evolution content but “explicitly excludes” crucial points about evolution from its state-wide tests.

States cited for vague standards include Pennsylvania, New Hampshire, and New Jersey. One example: New Jersey fourth graders are asked to “Demonstrate understanding of the interrelationships among fundamental concepts in the physical, life and Earth systems sciences.” Meanwhile, in A-scoring California, the standards explain to teachers and curriculum writers much more specifically that “Electricity and magnetism are related effects that have many useful applications in everyday life.” The standards go on to list half a dozen specific skills and facts that students must master in order to understand that overarching concept, such as “Students know electrical energy can be converted to heat, light, and motion.”

The report also notes that standards for introducing scientific inquiry into classrooms are, in many states, vague to the point of uselessness. In Idaho, students are “merely asked to ‘make observations’ or to ‘use cooperation and interaction skills.’ ”

Finally, the report noted that few states make the link between math and science clear. In its own words: “Mathematics is integral to science. Yet .. many [states] seem to go to great lengths to avoid mathematical formulae and equations altogether.”

A December report by Change the Equation, a group of CEOs working to support President Obama’s Educate to Innovate campaign, also found  that states set radically different expectations for students in science. The report looked not at the standards themselves but at how each state scores its assessment tests and how it defines “proficiency” in the subject.

Lastly, a bit of good news. At least 26 states have signed on to an effort to write new, common “Next Generation Science Standards” that will be more rigorous and specific than what many states currently have on the books. To read more about that effort, visit http://www.nextgenscience.org/ or http://www.achieve.org/ or read the document upon which the standards will be based here.

About the Author: Anna Kuchment is a Contributing Editor at Scientific American and a staff science writer at The Dallas Morning News. She was previously a reporter, writer and editor with Newsweek magazine. She is also author of “The Forgotten Cure,” about bacteriophage viruses and their potential as weapons against antibiotic resistance. Follow on Twitter @akuchment.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.





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  1. 1. xristy 8:11 pm 02/1/2012

    Institutionalized ignorance increases iniquities amidst intransigent inhabitants.

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  2. 2. xristy 8:13 pm 02/1/2012

    There’s a typo in the link to the report. Should be: http://www.edexcellence.net/publications/the-state-of-state-science-standards-2012.html

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  3. 3. Anna Kuchment in reply to Anna Kuchment 9:44 pm 02/1/2012

    Thanks for catching that. Just fixed it. Best, Anna

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  4. 4. rickofudall 10:45 pm 02/1/2012

    Stupid people are far easier to lead to the “proper” conclusions. Democracy requires an educated electorate. You draw your own conclusions about what’s being done.

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  5. 5. billsmith 1:25 am 02/2/2012

    South Carolina (of all places!) has an above-average science standard worded with exemplary clarity? This deserves further study.

    Is this a case of low expectations? Are the reviewers’ statements that the standard describes evolution clearly (despite frequent deliberate avoidance of the word “evolution”) merely wishful thinking?

    Or could the key to improving standards in a subject actually be to inspire large numbers of parents, lawmakers, and scientists to engage in heated debate and nitpicking over every word?

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  6. 6. JamesDavis 7:20 am 02/2/2012

    Any time you try to improve the educational system, you threaten the upper 1%. They want to keep it, “the smart 1% queen bees and the really dumb and poor 99% worker bees. Look how hard they are fighting Obama and all the nasty names they are calling him when he tries to improve education. Nute, the Snute, said last night that when he becomes president, as soon as he walks through the presidents door, he is undoing everything Obama has done. He is going to have a working government. And Mitt, the Nut, who Snute said was going to be his vice president, said that he will not worry about the poor, they will be alright and Mitt demonized Obama’s degree, although Mitt has two degrees from the same school. So, don’t try to get any smarts when those two get in as president and vice president, and don’t get sick, …if you do, the Snute will drop you like a rotten egg and look for a younger country.

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  7. 7. trabant70 8:54 am 02/2/2012

    The assessment performs an US internal grading against the curve. How do California’s standards (and results) compare to Finland, China, Brazil, …?

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  8. 8. Anna Kuchment in reply to Anna Kuchment 9:24 am 02/2/2012

    That’s a good question, and I have a partial answer. I can’t speak for California specifically, but in 2007 students from Massachusetts and Minnesota — two other high-performing states when it comes to test scores — participated in the TIMMS international assessment of math and science knowledge, and they did well, placing in the top ranks internationally. I wrote a little bit about it here. So, while the U.S. on average performs poorly when compared to many other countries, there are pockets of academic excellence. As more and more states sign on to new, rigorous common standards in math, reading, and science (the science standards are in development), educators hope those pockets will spread.

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  9. 9. QuantumQualifax 10:25 am 02/2/2012

    Why the fixation on evolution? I would think that mathematics, astronomy, chemistry and physics outweigh paleobiologic questions far removed from how we currently make do with the world around us. Religious resistance to evolution is not going away anytime soon. A person’s belief in Adam, Eve and Noah’s Ark need not interfere with them becoming an excellent particle physicist or chemical engineer. I would hope that once immersed in science, people such as these would at some point acknowledge that the Bible is not a science textbook.

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  10. 10. Dark Matter 10:26 am 02/2/2012

    The Chinese have no philosophical problems teaching Science and what Science has to say about the real world as it actually is whether it is the Theory of Evolution by Natural Selection or anything else.

    The US, by contrast, has introduced eight anti-evolution bills in six state legislatures in the past year to reassure the cretinous, pig-ignorant luddites that their know-nothing stupidity is equal to the intelligence, qualifications and expertise of its scientists.

    Little wonder that China has far more scientists in proportion to their population than the US and that China is all set to completely eclipse the US in scientific and technological progress.

    It will seem that the US “leaders” pandering to the religious lobby has sown the seeds of its own terminal decline.

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  11. 11. David Marjanović 10:52 am 02/2/2012

    Why the fixation on evolution? I would think that mathematics, astronomy, chemistry and physics outweigh paleobiologic questions far removed from how we currently make do with the world around us.

    Evolution is not just paleobiology!!! The theory of evolution by mutation, selection and drift is the overarching concept of all of biology. Nothing about living beings makes sense without it. I hate to sound melodramatic, but I simply cannot overstate this. Medicine, agriculture, everything makes sense only “in the light of evolution” (Dobzhansky 1973).

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  12. 12. David Marjanović 10:54 am 02/2/2012

    Little wonder that China has far more scientists in proportion to their population than the US and that China is all set to completely eclipse the US in scientific and technological progress.

    Heh. Just now I received a Naturejobs Newsletter Alert titled “Conducting clinical studies abroad, opportunities in China and loss of high-tech jobs in United States”…

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  13. 13. cj4ucla 11:36 am 02/2/2012

    “Why the fixation on evolution?” Living nature is the most accessible way for young students to interact with scientific education. Children’s first scientific questions are ‘why’ questions about animals, plants, dinosaurs, and their own bodies. If we cannot satisfactorily answer for them why people get goosebumps or why plants have flowers, how are they ever going to trust us to answer questions in chemistry or physics? Or, why are they even going think to ask these questions later on? The beauty of biology is that children are curious and higher-level mathematics and reasoning is not required in order to foster their curiosity.

    Evolution not only underpins all of biology it underpins linguistics, history, the arts, , architecture, mathematics, and computers. Over time, things change to become more adapted to their environment. This principle is true of any complex “thing”, even our children as they develop and interact with the world. It’s an easy-to-grasp yet hefty concept that provides satisfying answers to big questions with further investigation. And that, I think, is what scientific education is all about.

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  14. 14. geojellyroll 12:30 pm 02/2/2012

    I’m a scientist (geologist) but not American so I’m not cheerleading for the ‘home team’.

    The USA produces creative thinkers who give the world the Intel Chip, Windows, Yahoo, Google, Facebook the Ipods, etc

    Americans dominate the Nobel prizes. Dominate space technology (yes, still)…military technology…medical technology…cummunications technology….agricultural technology, etc.

    hint: Stop beating yourself up. You are world leaders in the ‘real world’ of science. Perhaps there are flaws in your education system but at the same time that system fosters creativity and innovation.

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  15. 15. bigbopper 2:51 pm 02/2/2012

    Hurray for California!

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  16. 16. bigbopper 2:57 pm 02/2/2012

    @jelly: of the 333 American winners of the Nobel Prize, 85 were born in another country.

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  17. 17. geojellyroll 5:09 pm 02/2/2012

    “jelly: of the 333 American winners of the Nobel Prize, 85 were born in another country’

    As were tens of millions of other Americans. These future Nobel winners were attracted to the U.S. educational and science infrasctucture.

    Facebook today…worth more than the annual GDP of dozens of countries in the world.

    I’m an atheist so think some attitudes towards evolution, etc. are ‘dumb’ in the USA. But, the article is off course. Social issues impact a fraction of 1% of ‘science’. (none in my area of energy exploration) Medical research is cutting edge in ‘Mormon’ Utah and military research ‘cutting edge’ in fundy Georgia.

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  18. 18. khandro 1:59 am 02/3/2012

    I think the problem here isn’t so much which science content is taught (medical, geo, enviro, etc), it’s that the process of thinking critically about the world around us is built into the studying of, and doing science. So if we do a lousy job of science education (vague standards, pedagogy, assessments etc), we do a disservice to future decision makers (policy makers and voters) and further widen the divide between ideolog”ism” and real”ism”. It just HAS to be said, that much of this divide is theology-generated. “Separation of church and state” sounds much better in principle than in practice.

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  19. 19. dorisfrench 6:51 am 02/3/2012

    Look at this map. The reason it is like this is because all the states have their own material they teach relevant to their state, the ecosystem there and the plants and animals they have there (for biology). California has curriculum about California’s ecosystem. The at the end of the year everyone in the USA takes a test written in California over material not even relevant to what they’ve been learning. This is why Californians are the only one passing this test.

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  20. 20. dorisfrench 9:03 am 02/3/2012

    First, let me tell you that Fordham has never given Oklahoma a grade other than F. Secondly, they do not now, nor have they ever been supporters of the National Science Standards, upon which the Oklahoma Standards were originally based. Third, they have always given “A” or “B” grades to states who write standards that are essentially long lists of facts to be taught and tested. Hence, they give high marks to New York, California and Washington, DC and low marks to states who emphasize science process skills and science concepts over factoids. Fourth, the Fordham Foundation is headed by Chester Finn, who was a Reagan appointee as a deputy Secretary of Education charged with bringing the agency down. His fellow appointee was Diane Ravitch, who has since had a conversion experience and changed her stance 180 degrees. Finally, we may suck, but Oklahoma students outperform students in every one of the southern states rated higher than us by this study when they take the ACT test. We also score better than all of these same states, including Florida and California on the NAEP, despite our poor science standards rating by Fordham .

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  21. 21. Anna Kuchment in reply to Anna Kuchment 11:18 am 02/3/2012

    Thanks, very interesting. Here’s a link to the 2011 NAEP results for anyone interested: http://nces.ed.gov/nationsreportcard/pdf/main2011/2012458.pdf
    The results of the math portion, the only one I had time to check out quickly, do show that a higher percentage of Oklahoma 8th graders scored at or above “basic” (72 percent) than 8th graders in California (61%), D.C. (48%), or Florida (68%).

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  22. 22. gr8day8 12:19 pm 02/3/2012

    The United States may have the scientific lead, however it is quickly eroding. The problem with teaching evolution is that evolution contradicts Evangelical teachings. Evangelicals believe the earth is 6000 years old, per the Bible. Since evolution requires millions of years, evolution must be a lie, is anti-god and thus shouldn’t be taught. There is currently and extremely strong swing to the religious right in the US. It’s a very anti-scientific movement at its core. It’s dangerous and threatens the US in its ability to educate, innovate and lead, but also on a very basic level of it attacks freedom. Knowledge, rationalism and free thought is being systematically stomped out in the US, the pro-creative design initiatives being pushed through legislatures are indicative of it. In many places in the US, teachers discuss evolution at the peril of employment. It’s frightening.

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  23. 23. mixitup 12:20 pm 02/3/2012

    One of the most important scientific categories of all time is routinely neglected: http://goo.gl/obiC

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  24. 24. jackpol 2:19 pm 02/3/2012

    Let me point out that Darwin’s theory falls far short of being a science. It is loaded with reasonable hunches, “stands to reason”, etc. Darwin would be dumbfounded to learn that the career of all living things is encoded in each cell carrying 6 billion base pairs (6,000,000,000) all in correct order, the permutation of which, to create a new species for example, would require a supreme intelligence of a brilliance we cannot even comprehend.
    The topic can’t be intelligently discussed because of all the baggage brought in. Mostly it devolves into there is/is not a god and a belief that man could have evolved from swamp water.
    As was pointed out, it has little impact on everyday life, but does provide fuel to a student who is attracted by atheism. Otherwise I think it’s safe to say the students don’t give a hoot either way. School boards have no expertise but are terrified of being labeled as unscientific. Note also that science has its own superstitions, dark energy the most recent example.

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  25. 25. Carol G. 3:18 pm 02/3/2012

    What happened to the US’s goal of using the metric system by the late 1970′s or ’80′s? When I was in grade school, we had to learn it, doing math and science problems in a blue-collar suburban public school of Chicago.

    Then, suddenly, around high school in the mid-70′s, there was no more talk of metric except in my science classes. (I earned two applied science degrees.) It would have been easy to have it accomplished by now, given that globalization has become more prevalent. Too bad the US got off track.

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  26. 26. gr8day8 5:31 pm 02/3/2012

    Evolution is fact. Those who accept it are scientists, those who reject it do so only because their “faith” tells them they can’t accept it. It is only disavowed by those attempting to hijack the curriculum to a theistic base.

    Quick pool: Is there any true scientist here, who does not believe evolution is fact? Please state that you don’t believe in evolution and your education credentials.

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  27. 27. Synova 12:47 am 02/4/2012

    Someone interested in objective fact would notice that many states with low “grades” get much better scores in science than California, the supposed very best of the best in science education. Clearly, blatantly, in-your-face obviously, the “better” standards do not result in higher science achievement.

    If the standards don’t result in higher science achievement, then by what measure are they better? By what measure are they judged to be better? If not by efficacy, then what? Because the standards contain the proper things, by someone’s subjective standard.

    Someone’s useless subjective standard.

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  28. 28. Synova 12:59 am 02/4/2012

    Consider faith based beliefs… such as that a mythical anti-science religious threat exists that is preventing the US from competing in science and technology *as it used to do*.

    Implied, then, is that the US *used to be* free of this religious threat, since we used to compete in science and what-all.

    The problem with this particular belief is that it exists apart of easily observable facts and trends. The US *used to be* more traditionally religious than it is now. If one were to correlate actual, real, trends, wouldn’t we find that science performance is stronger in a society informed by a strong religious sensibility, an essentially protestant ethos, and weakens as that religious sensibility is abandoned?

    But if the most important thing are those standards that poke the religious in the eye, properly, while science performance tanks… well then, that’s a choice, isn’t it.

    Science is interested in what actually is, not so much in what people believe ought to be true. The argument that disbelief in evolutionary origins will plunge us into ignorance is one made without supporting data. It’s a philosophical argument, not a scientific one. One can win a philosophical argument and still lose the truth.

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  29. 29. Synova 1:08 am 02/4/2012

    I notice that the blog author specifically mentions Minnesota as high performing and yet… Minnesota gets a D?

    And no one looked at this and had a moment of question on the premise?

    It’s like doing a calculation, getting an answer that makes no sense, and not even noticing.

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  30. 30. Lsyj9t 5:56 am 02/4/2012

    All education in the US has declined since the creation of the Department of Education. In the 60s and early 70s, we consistently ranked the highest or one of the best in the World in science education. Time wasted on the Global Warming hoax concers me too.

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  31. 31. Dark Matter 8:51 am 02/4/2012

    “David Marjanović 10:54 am 02/2/2012

    Little wonder that China has far more scientists in proportion to their population than the US and that China is all set to completely eclipse the US in scientific and technological progress.

    Heh. Just now I received a Naturejobs Newsletter Alert titled “Conducting clinical studies abroad, opportunities in China and loss of high-tech jobs in United States”…”

    Indeed, if the US does not respect its scientists and science (no matter what it states about the true nature of reality) then it will simply lose the scientific and technological progress that it currently enjoys to its competitors.

    As a Brit, I absolutely love America and its warm-hearted people but the advances that it has worked so very hard to gain are perpetually under risk of being undone by constantly indulging the most terminally stupid, shrill and (let’s be honest) pathetically pig-ignorant of its loud-mouthed luddites.

    The US opposition and blanket denial of the Theory of Evolution by Natural Selection means that it is shooting itself in-the-foot and risks its long term future.

    It is not too late to do something about this but it will require very political leadership that isn’t afraid or at all intimidated by arguing the facts-of-life with the most vociferous of voters.

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  32. 32. Jon_Roland 12:10 pm 02/4/2012

    I have been a reader of Scientific American since the early 1950s, and I am distressed at how much the technical level of its articles has been dumbed down and shortened. I do not expect articles to be at the level of Science or Nature, but I do expect them to be much more advanced than Science News. I also expect them to be written by scientists more than by science journalists.

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  33. 33. Jake999 12:48 am 02/5/2012

    One problem with correlating US science testing to other countries testing, is too remember when the Brazil physics and related test scores were much higher than the US; but then Dr. Feynman discovered on his mission there, that the tests were word for word what was being taught in the classroom! These were memory tests! There were no questions on to see if students could apply what they had learned! Also, I remember reading a while back that a journalist asked a Hong Kong School Superintendent of why his students scored so high on science type of tests, but that there was very little application as to products; the Superintendent responded that we are were good test takers.

    Additionally, my neighbor who is a Chinese immigrant with PhD in Math, told me that on his trip to China to visit his relatives, that the University there put on a campaign to get students for their Physics Department -only one was interested. The rest were interested in the business due to the massive wealth being achieved there.

    On another related issue, Dr. Feynman discovered that the Los Angeles Unified School Districts were buying Math and related books without the any one reading them and that he had found many errors in the texts. The school board relied on the sellers telling them what was in the books!

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  34. 34. HubertB 7:34 pm 02/10/2012

    A white male certified physics teacher was replaced in the classroom by a female English teacher. She did not know the first thing about physics but she provided affirmative action dollars for the school. He then took a job in industry. Who knows if any of those students will do anything in science?

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  35. 35. evolman 10:41 pm 02/10/2012

    You’re all preaching to the choir – it’s the evolution of politics.

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  36. 36. kinect_dev 2:51 pm 11/13/2012

    According to that map Utah is a shining beacon of education in the Western states. In fact, only California scores higher. This goes to show that religion and science DO NOT have to be mutually exclusive.

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  37. 37. DEbeachgirl 3:36 pm 11/13/2012

    This is exactly why we should have federal education guidelines. Every child should have the same chance, the same education. No child should go w/o books, or heat, or air conditioning, or a good teacher, or school supplies. There needs to be an educational revolution in this country. We’re becoming the stupid country. We pretend we can still compete but we can’t.

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  38. 38. DEbeachgirl 3:43 pm 11/13/2012

    Btw, if you think climate change is a hoax then you probably aren’t getting much out of these articles. gah!

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  39. 39. MCARE 6:02 pm 11/13/2012

    First off, let’s stop this nonsense about “test scores”. We all know test scores do not accurately measure learning. Second, why are individual states allowed to set educational standards? Is there a difference between science in California and science in Montana? Do the laws of physics suddenly change when you cross over the border into Pennsylvania? No. Science is science no matter where you are. The standards for science education should be treated the same way.

    Republicans want to eliminate the Department of Education. I say, on the contrary, the DoE should be enlarged and charged with the task of educating. Educational Standards, whether in Science, Mathematics, or Social Studies, should not be written by politicians or church leaders. They should be written by educators with input from professionals in the given field. And students should be held to the same standards whether they live in California or any of the other 49 states.

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  40. 40. nawd1 9:21 pm 11/13/2012

    As difficult as it may be to believe…yes, SC has above average standards actually in all areas–not just science! This is where much of the problems in our state lie! The standards are too difficult and fast passed for the majority of the students. Look closer at our drop out rates and failures!!!How do I know…taught here 30 plus years!

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