Many States Receive 'D' or 'F' in Review of Science Standards
A new review offers a "bleak picture" of the state of state science standards across the nation, with just over half earning a grade of D or F.
Only California and the District of Columbia were given a solid A, while four states were handed an A-minus, according to the review by the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, a Washington-based think tank.
The Fordham report, issued last week, focuses on two main areas: "content and rigor," and "clarity and specificity." It argues, for instance, that many states' standards are "so vague as to be meaningless." The review also contends that state standards often undermine the teaching of evolution.
The review is the third Fordham has produced on science standards; the last came in 2005.
"The results of this rigorous analysis paint a fresh—but still bleak—picture," wrote institute President Chester E. Finn Jr., a former education official in the Reagan administration, and senior director Kathleen Porter-Magee, in a foreword to the report. "A majority of the states' standards remain mediocre to awful. In fact, the average grade across all states is—once again—a thoroughly undistinguished C."
The study comes as a major effort is under way to develop a set of common, "next generation" science standards. Twenty-six states are playing a lead role in crafting the new standards, guided by a framework developed by the National Research Council. A first draft of the standards is expected out for public comment in late March or April.
In explaining the F grade handed to Wisconsin, one of 10 states to receive failing marks, the Fordham report describes the standards as "simply worthless," saying "no real content exists to evaluate."
Patrick J. Gasper, a spokesman for the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction, said that his state's standards were "considered exemplary" when released in 1998, but that they are not grade-specific.
"In a state like Wisconsin, providing too much specificity ran counter to our system, where local control is important," he said.
Mr. Gasper added that a few years ago, the state issued a supplemental document to help school districts make curricular decisions, and that "many districts and educators have utilized this resource."
Wisconsin officials are "anxiously awaiting" the completion of the common science standards, he said, though he cautioned that the state would not make a decision on adopting them until it reviews the final product, expected out by year's end.
One issue the Fordham report highlights as cause for concern in state standards is the handling of evolution.
It says that while "many states" are addressing the topic better than in the past, "anti-evolution pressures continue to threaten state science standards."
The report, for example, notes that Missouri has "asterisked all 'controversial' evolution content in the standards and relegated it to a voluntary curriculum that will not be assessed." And the report says a common technique in some states is to direct students to study evolution's "strengths and weaknesses."
The report indicates that only four states—Florida, Iowa, New Hampshire, and Rhode Island—openly embrace human evolution in their science standards.
The National Research Council framework for common science standards, devised by a panel of experts in science and education, identified "biological evolution" as one of four "core ideas" for understanding the life sciences.
The Fordham Institute report says many states do a poor job of integrating scientific inquiry with content in their standards, and fail to make the link between science and mathematics.
Ms. Porter-Magee said she hopes that the report will spur states with poor grades to revise their standards, and that it highlights models worth considering to inform the common standards.
California and the District of Columbia, she said, "did an outstanding job" with their standards.
"Those standards in both cases were very comprehensive, really outlined all of the important science content that students need to learn across all the disciplines and all the grades," she said. "They were also clear, free from jargon, [and] really provided the kind of road map that teachers, curriculum developers, and assessment developers need."
Florida, although praised for its treatment of evolution, got a D for its standards, last updated in 2008. The report says the document "starts out well" in the primary grades, but in the upper grades "weakens into poor organization, ambiguous statements, and basic errors."
A Florida official said she was "perplexed" and disappointed" by the grade. She said that one of the co-authors of the latest and earlier Fordham reports actually provided direct feedback to Florida on a draft of the 2008 standards, and that he provided a much more favorable assessment than the Fordham grade this time around.
"The rating is confusing to us," said the state official, Mary Jane Tappen, a deputy chancellor at the Florida Department of Education, who said the state went through a rigorous process involving a variety of experts to help develop its standards.
In any case, Ms. Tappen said, the state would take another look at the document. "Certainly, if we have any errors or content that leads to misconception, we need to make those corrections immediately," she said.
Ms. Porter-Magee said that the report and its grades reflect the work of five science experts, and that the think tank stands by its Florida analysis. At the same time, she said she sympathized with the concerns of Florida officials, adding that "Florida has been working hard to improve the quality of its standards."
Ms. Porter-Magee cautioned that each state's grade does not tell the whole story for its science standards, because it may have received higher or lower marks in particular domains of science.
"If a state got a C overall, it doesn't mean it got a C in all areas," she said. "For example, high school physics and chemistry was almost across the board among the weakest" domains in states' science standards.
Vol. 31, Issue 20, Page 9Published in Print: February 8, 2012, as Nationwide Review of Science Standards Offers Low Marks