CREDIT: Martin Cron, via Flikr

One day after new test results showed that only 32 percent of U.S. 8th graders are proficient in science, a group of 26 states has helped draft a document that may bring about a major overhaul of science education in this country. Known as the Next Generation Science Standards, the draft sets ambitious new expectations for what students should learn in each grade from kindergarten through high school, specifying that evolution and an understanding of how human activity impacts the climate are essential components of scientific literacy. Starting in 2013, states will have the option of adopting these standards and bringing their school curricula in line with them.

The standards are based on recommendations from the National Research Council of the National Academies and address many perceived shortcomings in science education. “Currently, K-12 science education in the United States…is not organized systematically across multiple years of school, emphasizes discrete facts with a focus on breadth over depth, and does not provide students with engaging opportunities to experience how science is actually done,” wrote the authors of the NRC framework. The standards also put new emphasis on engineering, an area that U.S. teenagers, judging by recent studies, know little about. They also stress process as much as content, explaining how scientists build on and revise their knowledge based on evidence, how they ask questions and define problems, how they develop and use models, and plan and carry out investigations. For example, the standards call for kindergarteners to “use observations to describe how plants and animals depend on the air, land, and water where they live to meet their needs.” Middle schoolers would develop models to represent the “cycling from carbon in the atmosphere to carbon in living things.”

The recommendations also explicitly include the teaching of climate change, evolution, natural selection and the history of Earth. Middle schoolers would “obtain and evaluate information about how two populations of the same species in different environments have evolved to become separate species.” They would also “use system models and representations to explain how human activities significantly impact: (1) the geosphere, (2) the hydrosphere, (3) the atmosphere, (4) the biosphere, and (5) global temperatures.”

Forty-five states plus the District of Columbia recently signed on to common math and language arts standards, and organizers of this effort hope it will be at least as successful. But, says Stephen Pruitt, vice president for content, research and development at Achieve, the Washington, D.C.- based non-profit that is organizing the effort with a major grant from the Carnegie Corporation of New York, "Its’s a draft! We want people to give us feedback and we will be responding to that feedback."

Are you a parent with a child in public school? Read the standards for the relevant grades and see how they compare with what your child is learning in school this year. Are you a teacher? Then how big of a change do these standards represent for the grades you work with? If you're a student, then let me know your opinion about what scientists and education experts think you ought to know. And everyone else whose interested, please weigh in also in the comments section below.

Additional resources:

View the standards here.

Read the National Research Council's framework on which the standards are based.

Read some of the research on which the NRC based its framework:

"Taking Science to School: Learning and Teaching Science in Grades K-8." National Research Council, 2007. (Free PDF download)

"America’s Lab Report: Investigations in High School Science." National Research Council, 2006. (Free PDF download).

"Learning Science in Informal Environments: People, Places, and Pursuits." National Resarch Council, 2009. (Free PDF download).

Read the Common Core Math and Language Arts standards here.