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.