Review Gives Many States ‘D’ or ‘F’ for Science Standards

By Erik W. Robelen — January 31, 2012 4 min read
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A new report 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. Among the 10 states to receive a failing grade were Idaho, Oregon, and Wisconsin. (See the full list below.)

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 today, 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 new report represents the third time Fordham has examined state science standards, with the last study released in 2005.

“The results of this rigorous analysis paint a fresh—but still bleak—picture,”
write Fordham 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 is timely, as a major effort is underway to develop a set of common, “next-generation” science standards. Twenty-six states are playing a lead role in helping to develop the new standards, which are guided by a framework developed by the National Research Council. (In fact, Fordham recently graded the framework itself, giving the document a B+.)

On the issue of teaching evolution, the report says that while “many states” are handling the issue better than in the past, “anti-evolution pressures continue to threaten state science standards.”

Although it highlights a few overt efforts, such as the Louisiana Science Education Act, Fordham says the tactics elsewhere are often “far more subtle.” It 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 its “strengths and weaknesses.”

The report indicates that only four states—Florida, New Hampshire, Iowa, and Rhode Island—openly embrace human evolution in their current science standards.

I should note here that the NRC framework, developed by a panel of experts in science and education, is emphatic about evolution’s role in learning science. This suggests that the topic will play an important role in the common science standards. The NRC panel identified biological evolution as one of the four “core ideas” for understanding the life sciences.

Another issue flagged by the Fordham report is the teaching of scientific inquiry. The report concludes that 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.

“Unfortunately, too many states treat inquiry as an afterthought or add-on,” the report says.

Fordham’s Porter-Magee told me that she’s hopeful that the new report, in addition to spurring states with low grades to revise their standards, also will highlight some models worthy of consideration to inform the development of the common standards.

California and the District of Columbia, she said, “did an outstanding job” with their standards. (California’s standards haven’t changed since 2005, but DC’s have, and its grade improved from a C in 2005 to an A this time.)

“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, really provided the kind of roadmap that teachers, curriculum developers, and assessment developers need.”

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. “A lot of states don’t even delineate high school physics and chemistry standards, and that’s important. You need to have that content and it needs to be separated out.”

Here’s the breakdown of states by the grade they received:

A: California, District of Columbia

A-: Indiana, Massachusetts, South Carolina, Virginia

B+: New York

B: Arkansas, Kansas, Louisiana, Maryland, Ohio, Utah

C: Connecticut, Delaware, Georgia, Michigan, Minnesota, Mississippi, Missouri, New Mexico, Texas, Vermont, Washington

D: Alabama, Arizona, Colorado, Florida, Hawaii, Illinois, Iowa, Kentucky, Maine, Nevada, New Hampshire, New Jersey, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Tennessee, West Virginia

F: Alaska, Idaho, Montana, Nebraska, North Dakota, Oklahoma, Oregon, South Dakota, Wisconsin, Wyoming

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A version of this news article first appeared in the Curriculum Matters blog.