School & District Management

Science Standards Mediocre, Study Finds

By Sean Cavanagh — December 13, 2005 4 min read
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More than two-thirds of states have science standards that earn a C grade or worse for their quality, in part because they overemphasize “discovery learning,” the idea that students should be encouraged to acquire knowledge through their own investigation and experimentation, a study issued last week concludes.

Too many of those standards—documents that spell out what students are expected to know—also present science in a sprawling, unorganized way that is short of facts and content, according to the report by the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation.

Titled “The State of State Science Standards, 2005,” the report is a follow-up to a 2000 analysis conducted by the conservative-leaning Washington-based think tank, which promotes strong academic standards and educational options such as charter schools. During the five years since the previous report, the overall quality of standards remained about the same, with roughly the same number of states, 19, receiving an A or B on both studies.

States' Standing

A new study indicates that state science standards are generally strongest in their presentation of biology and weakest in chemistry and environmental science.

Discipline or issueAverage score for all states
Biological sciences68%
Physical science64%
Earth/space science 61%
Inquiry 57%
Evolution 57%
Chemistry, environmental science 50%

A majority of states received a C or lower on the quality of their science standards.

Grade Number of States
A 7
B 12
C 9
D 7
F 15

SOURCE: Thomas B. Fordham Foundation

“The nation, in its entirely, is neither making progress nor losing ground when it comes to its expectations for what students should learn in science,” the new report says. “Unfortunately, that’s hardly news worth celebrating.”

The analysis judges science standards on such factors as presentation of unambiguous learning goals, freedom from educational or academic jargon, organization, and treatment of core topics, such as evolution.

Paul R. Gross, a professor emeritus of life sciences at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville, directed the study. He combed through the lengthy documents with the help of other researchers with extensive scientific backgrounds in college and K-12 education.

Just seven states scored an A on their science standards: California, Indiana, Massachusetts, New Mexico, New York, South Carolina, and Virginia. Twelve states were awarded a B, nine received a C, seven states took a D, and 15 received an F. Thirteen states took higher grades than they did in 2000; 19 saw their grades drop.

When it came to the theory of evolution, whose handling by schools is a topic of furious debate around the country, 20 states earned a “sound” rating, or a grade of A or B, a decrease from 24 states in 2000, the study found. Twenty-two states received a D or F, compared with 12 in 2000.

“The State of State Science Standards 2005" is available from the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation.

Upgrading U.S. students’ scientific knowledge is increasingly important in today’s economy, particularly in light of foreign competition, the authors note. The Fordham study generally judges states on their coverage of crucial scientific facts and ideas that the authors believe students will need, as recognized by the mainstream scientific community.

The overall weak treatment of evolution, the authors say, is probably not the result of recent pressure to include supposed alternatives to evolution, such as “intelligent design”—the idea that an unspecified architect has shaped life’s development. Instead, the report says, the inadequacy is a function of the “general weakness of disciplinary content for all science.”

Kansas alone received an F-minus grade on coverage of evolution, in large part because its standards were recently rewritten to suggest wrongly that the theory’s scientific basis was somehow “in deep trouble,” Mr. Gross said.

Fordham’s findings on evolution bear some similarity to the results of a recent Education Week analysis, which showed that many state science standards ignore the central principles and evidence associated with the established theory. The newspaper also found that state assessments include evolution to varying degrees. (“Treatment of Evolution Inconsistent,” Nov. 9, 2005 and “Evolution Theory Well Represented in Leading High School Textbooks,” Dec. 7, 2005.)

What Kind of Lessons?

The Fordham Foundation study particularly objected to states’ support for discovery learning, which expects students to gain scientific knowledge by working through problems on their own, such as hands-on experiments. That approach is sometimes considered the opposite of “direct instruction,” or lessons directed by teachers presenting basic facts.

“It’s not possible for [students], no matter how smart they are, to work out the law of thermodynamics on their own,” Mr. Gross said in a phone call with reporters. Such concepts “have got to be taught. [They] cannot come from hands-on” learning.

Fordham’s report does not reject hands-on learning outright, but says a balance between straightforward presentation of facts and “investigation in the field, laboratory, or library” should be struck.

Discovery learning is sometimes associated with a concept called inquiry. Fordham’s report approves of that approach to science standards, as long as it emphasizes “real and useful” subject matter. In fact, the study grades states on how well they promote inquiry, which it defines as the process of doing science, as well as incorporating explanations of its history, philosophy, and purpose.

Gerald F. Wheeler, the executive director of the Arlington, Va.-based National Science Teachers Association, disagreed with the report’s conclusion about the negative influence of discovery learning.

The NSTA official sees the opposite problem: Many science teachers are offering students an endless stream of facts for memorization, often reading them straight from textbooks, without making the content interesting or meaningful, he said.

“I don’t see the inappropriately high level of discovery learning they see,” Mr. Wheeler said of the Fordham authors. “They’re creating a false dichotomy. … The picture they’re presenting is an extreme one.”

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