Oh dear. The map pretty much says it all. A new report by the Thomas B. Fordham Institute gives a majority of states in the U.S. a D or F when it comes to state science standards. More than 75% received a grade of C or lower. Only six states (including Washington, D.C.) received A grades. (Click here for a larger version of the map.)
The key word here is "standards" -- the grades were given to the state science standards, not actual science results or education. But standards are the cornerstone of all science programs. They determine what the curriculum will be, what the textbooks will say and how the teachers will be trained.
As Scientific American says, "Each state is free to formulate its own standards, and numerous studies have found that high standards are a first step on the road to high student achievement."
Not only that, but such "mediocre to awful standards," as the study's lead authors describe them, put in jeopardy the U.S.'s "national competitiveness, technological prowess and scientific leadership."
Areas of weakness
The study's lead authors cite four areas of weakness:
- teaching of evolution, which has been weakened by anti-evolution movements
- vagueness that renders the standards practically meaningless
- an emphasis on discovery in the classroom that is not complemented by enough specific content instruction
- weak math instruction that hobbles students' learning of physics and chemistry
The report explains that eight anti-evolution bills were introduced in six states last year, and two more this year.
”And these tactics are far more subtle than they once were,” the report says. “Missouri, for example, has asterisked all ‘controversial’ evolution content in the standards and relegated it to a voluntary curriculum that will not be assessed … Tennessee includes evolution only in an elective high school course (not the basic high school biology course).” Maryland “explicitly excludes” important points about evolution from its state-wide tests.
Here's a sample of a vague standard from New Jersey; this is for fourth graders: “Demonstrate understanding of the interrelationships among fundamental concepts in the physical, life and Earth systems sciences.”
Contrast that with the standard in California, which received an A: “Electricity and magnetism are related effects that have many useful applications in everyday life.”
Discovery vs. content
In Idaho, the report says, students are “merely asked to ‘make observations’ or to ‘use cooperation and interaction skills.’ ”
The report says, “Mathematics is integral to science. Yet .. many [states] seem to go to great lengths to avoid mathematical formulae and equations altogether.”
How much of an impact the science standards have on results is a big question, but certainly, U.S. science education could improve: World education rankings released in December of 2010 by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development show that the U.S. ranks squarely in the average zone, far after top-ranked countries such as China, Finland, Singapore, Japan, South Korea, New Zealand, Canada and others. (In the link above, the chart needs to be sorted for science in order to see how the countries stack up on science alone.)
One positive note reported by Scientific American: 26 states have signed on to improve science standards at Next Generation Science Standards.