The conclusion above came to my attention from Scientific American‘s “Budding Scientist” website, which has a report by Anna Kuchment with the frank title, “U.S. state science standards are ‘mediocre to awful.’”
Kuchment’s piece is based on a report by the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, “The State of State Science Standards, 2012,” released on January 31. The authors of that are a distinguished lot: Lawrence S. Lerner, Ursula Goodenough, John Lynch, Martha Schwartz, and Richard Schwartz, with an NAEP (National Association of Education Progress) review by Paul R. Gross.)
You can download the pdf of the report here, or just skip that and just see where your state stands if you live in the U.S. (Although the report is 217 pages long, all but eleven pages of that is either description of methodology or assessments of each of the 50 states.)
The conclusions (those in quotations are taken directly from the report):
- “The results of this rigorous analysis paint a fresh—but still bleak—picture. A majority of the states’ standards remainvmediocre to awful. In fact, the average grade across all states is—once again—a thoroughly undistinguished C. (In fact, it’s a low C.) In twenty-six jurisdictions, the science standards earn a D or below. Yet this very weakness in what states expect of their schools, teachers, and students in science suggests that a purposeful focus on improving—or replacing—today’s standards could be a key part of a comprehensive effort to boost science performance.”
- “Two jurisdictions—California and the District of Columbia—have standards strong enough to earn straight As from our reviewers. Four other states—Indiana, Massachusetts, South Carolina, and Virginia—earn A-minuses, as does the NAEP assessment framework. And seven states earn grades in the B range. But this also means that just thirteen jurisdictions—barely 25 percent, and fewer than in 2005—earn a B or better for setting appropriately clear, rigorous, and specific standards.”
- The average grade hasn’t changed since 2005, since those states that improved their standards are balanced by a slightly larger number that lowered them.
- Why is the U.S. doing so poorly? The authors single out four problems with state standards:
- The undermining of evolution through a variety of methods, both involving the legislature (as in Louisiana’s “academic freedom” act that allows the teaching of intelligent design creationism) and more subtle incursions, like Colorado and West Virginia’s mandate that the “strengths and weaknesses” of evolution be discussed, while of course other “theories” don’t come in for such treatment.
- Vague standards that give teachers little guidance. The report mentions, as two examples, “A middle school teacher in New Hampshire, for example, will come face to face with the following: ‘Identify energy as a property of many substances.’ Pennsylvania offers the equally baffling ‘Explain the chemistry of metabolism.’ Such empty statements can do little to inform curriculum development or instruction, and give no guidance to assessment developers.”
- The promotion of “inquiry based learning” without any guidance to teachers how to implement it. The report notes, “Iowa schoolchildren are directed to: ‘Make appropriate personal/lifestyle/technology choices, evaluate, observe, discuss/debate, recognize interactions and interdependencies at all levels, explain, describe environmental effects of public policy, choose appropriate course(s) of action.‘ Such statements are devoid of any teachable content and leave teachers with no guidance as to how they can incorporate genuine scientific inquiry skills into their instruction.” Further, many states say nothing about the history of science, which is essential for teaching students how science works and how to be critical.
- There’s not enough math. As the report notes, things are far too qualitative, perhaps catering to students’ “mathophobia”: “Mathematics is integral to science. Yet few states make the link between math and science clear—and many seem to go to great lengths to avoid mathematical formulae and equations altogether. The result is usually a clumsy mishmash of poor writing that could much more easily and clearly be expressed in numbers.”
It’s no surprise, then, that among 15 year olds tested in 65 countries, U.S. students ranked 23rd in science proficiency, while only 21% of U.S. twelfth-graders (17 and 18 year olds) are at or above the “proficient” standard in science.
This is a very thorough report: the most thorough I’ve seen from any organization. There are an average of 3.5 pages of evaluation for each of the U.S.’s 50 states. If you’re a parent, or simply a citizen concerned about the condition of American science education, look at your state’s standards and, if so moved, complain!
Here’s the U.S. map with each state’s grade. Note that although the South is low as expected, the midwest, along with Oregon and Idaho, rank even lower. And an F for Wisconsin? This was a surprise to me. Read the state-by-state evaluations to see why.