December 7, 2005
Study Flunks State Science Standards
By Kavan Peterson, Staff Writer
Nearly half the states flunked an examination of statewide science standards for elementary and high schools whose results are being released Dec. 7.
The State of State Science Standards 2005 appraised the quality of statewide K-12 science standards required to be in place this school year by the federal No Child Left Behind (NCLB) law. Adopting new science standards is the first step leading to NCLB science testing required in every state by 2007.
Fifteen states flunked, seven earned a "D" grade and eight were given a "C" by a panel of science professors who reviewed state science standards. The study was sponsored by the Thomas B. Fordham Institute , a conservative think tank that supports toughening school standards.
The remaining 19 states, which educate just over half of U.S. students, earned grades of "A" or "B", with California, Virginia, Massachusetts, South Carolina and Indiana in the top five. Idaho, Texas, Wisconsin, Alaska and Kansas received the lowest marks.
Iowa failed to publish science standards by the study's deadline.
The study did not say student performance in science could be predicted by the quality of state science standards. But it warned that America's standing in the world was threatened by lagging student achievement in the sciences, and called on states to do more to address this.
Student achievement on national science exams has remained flat for 30 years and the number of countries outperforming American students grew from four in 1995 to seven in 2004, the report said.
"At a time of increasing anxiety about our children's readiness in math and science, U.S. science education is under assault. We all know that great standards don't guarantee a good education for a state's students, but weak standards make it much less likely," said Chester E. Finn, Jr. of the Fordham Institute, which conducted a similar review of state science standards in 2000 and 1998.
State science class standards are supposed to lay out the course work and expectations for student achievement in each grade from kindergarten to high school.
The report credited eight states -- Virginia, New York, New Mexico, Tennessee, Colorado, Georgia, Maryland and West Virginia - with adopting new science standards since 2000 that boosted the states' grades from "Ds" or "Fs" to "As" and "Bs".
In New Mexico, which ranks near the bottom on nearly every education ranking, education officials were elated to go from an "F" to an "A" this year. The state's new science standards were designed in partnership with scientists at New Mexico-based Los Alamos National Laboratory, state Education Secretary Veronica Garcia told Stateline.org .
"What we're dealing with in New Mexico are the growing pains of education reform. Our standards recently have become much more rigorous and as we get our teachers better trained to meet the higher standards we believe student achievement will follow," Garcia said.
The study found that low-scoring states shared common problems, such as lengthy and overly complicated standards, or lack of facts and concepts deemed integral to understanding physics, chemistry and biology. The report also criticized states that over-emphasized "discovery learning", which promotes less classroom time learning core scientific knowledge in favor of student exploration through experiments.
The report also criticized a "disturbing and dangerous" trend by states to water down the teaching of evolution in response to religious and political pressure. Kansas, for instance, had its grade dropped from a "C" to an "F minus" after the state board of education adopted science standards critical of evolution in November.
Fourteen states were given failing grades for their teaching of evolution: Alaska, Arkansas, Alabama, Idaho, Kansas, Mississippi, Florida, Maine, Mississippi, Montana, New Hampshire, Oklahoma, Rhode Island and Wisconsin.
"Certainly some states do an awful job addressing evolution, but for the most part these states also do an awful job addressing the rest of science," report author Dr. Paul Gross, former head of the Marine Biological Laboratory at Woods Hole and former provost of the University of Virginia, said in a written statement.
Officials in several states that flunked the review said they received an unfair grade. Oregon officials said they got an "F" because the reviewers overlooked an entire section of the state's science standards. Nebraska's grade dropped from a "B" in 2000 to an "F" this year even though the state did not change its science standards during that time, state officials said.
"I guess the reviewers just didn't like us this time around," said Jim Woodland of the Nebraska Department of Education.
For the past four years, reading and math have been the primary focus of NCLB. The law is intended to boost student achievement and close racial and economic achievement gaps common in American schools. States that fail to improve test scores in reading and math every year until all students meet state standards by 2014 face financial sanctions and eventual state takeover.
Student performance on state science exams will not influence whether schools pass or fail their annual NCLB benchmarks. However, shining the accountability spotlight on science probably will reveal shortcomings in student achievement similar to those in reading in math, the report said.
"We must do a better job of teaching students real science content and skills to assure that there will be a next generation of scientific leadership-and that everyone else is scientifically literate as well," Gross said.