State Science Standards: An Appraisal of Science Standards in 36 States
Elizabeth L. Ambos, Associate Professor of Geological Sciences, California State University, Long Beach
Thomas C. Edholm, Science Teacher, Fresno Unified School District
Thomas P. Sachse, Curriculum and Assessment Consultant, Center for School Improvement, Region V BOCES; formerly Administrator, Mathematics, Science, and Environmental Education Unit, California State Department of Education
Michael A. Seeds, Professor of Astronomy and Director of the Joseph R. Grundy Observatory, Franklin and Marshall College
Ellen Weaver, Professor of Biology Emerita, San Jose State University
TABLE OF CONTENTS
National Report Card
The Thomas B. Fordham Foundation is pleased to present this appraisal of state science standards, prepared by Dr. Lawrence S. Lerner, Professor of Physics and Astronomy at California State University, Long Beach, in consultation with a distinguished panel of fellow scientists and science educators.
This is our fifth such publication. In July 1997, we issued Sandra Stotsky's evaluation of state English standards. Last month, we published examinations of state standards in history and geography. Our report on math standards is being issued concurrently with this one.
Thus we have now provided expert appraisals of the states' success in setting standards for the five core subjects designated by the governors and President Bush at their 1989 education "summit" in Charlottesville. The national education goals adopted there included the statement that, "By the year 2000, American students will leave grades four, eight, and twelve having demonstrated competency in challenging subject matter including English, mathematics, science, history, and geography." Although other subjects have value, too, these five remain the heart of the academic curriculum of U.S. schools.
Of the five reports we have published, Dr. Lerner's report is, upon first reading, the most bullish. Among the thirty-six jurisdictions with elementary/secondary science standards fit for appraisal, he found six that deserve "A" grades and seven that earn "B's." Good grades for more than a third of the states!
Yet that sounds good mostly because our expectations in such matters have fallen so low. Here's another way to look at the results: Dr. Lerner conferred nine failing grades and seven "D's": three more than won honors. Seven states earned "C's." The average grade for all the standards he appraised is C-minus. And fourteen states either do not have state science standards or did not make them available in timely fashion to Dr. Lerner, so we have no way of knowing how well or poorly they are doing in setting high standards for science education in the elementary/secondary years. In fact, we can only be confident from this analysis that six of our fifty states have first-rate science standards.
Hurrah for Arizona, California, Hawaii, Indiana, New Jersey, and Rhode Island. And shame on all the others!
For when it comes to academic standards, as Dr. Lerner remarks, even a "B" ought not be deemed satisfactory. In a properly organized education system, standards drive everything else. If they are only "pretty good," then "pretty good" is the best the system is apt to produce by way of student learning. No state should be satisfied with such a result. Hence no state should be satisfied with less than world-class standards in a core academic subject such as science.
Firstrate standards, moreover, are not that difficult to develop, even when science is their subject. Indeed, this field's very universality makes the task easier. Sound models exist-nationally, in other states, and in other countries. If any subject has the same essentials everywhere, after all, it's science. I can think of no sound reason why what is expected of teachers and children in biology or chemistry should be different in Tennessee (which got an "F" from Dr. Lerner) than in Indiana. Indeed, it should be approximately the same as what is expected in Singapore and Germany, too. A case can be made that academic standards in history or literature or art may be expected to vary from state to state, culture to culture, and country to country. But surely that is not true of science (or mathematics).
How close is the connection between standards and actual achievement? That depends on many factors, including how the standards are used within a larger accountability system (if any). I looked for a pattern that would connect Dr. Lerner's results with states' performance on the 1996 National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) in eighth-grade science. I couldn't find much of one, except that a slight majority of states given "D" or "F" in the Lerner analysis also showed poorly on NAEP. In many jurisdictions, however, the standards have not had time to gain much traction-and in some there is no real accountability system that is apt to give them any. There are, moreover, a number of fine schools and outstanding teachers that manage to do a good job with or without state standards.
But that's not good enough for the United States in 1998. It's not good enough that our eighth-graders fare worse than our fourth-graders on international assessments of science. It's not good enough that so few of our states have praiseworthy science standards to serve as goals, benchmarks, and accountability gauges. It's not good enough that how much and how well U.S. youngsters are expected to learn in this core discipline depend so heavily on where they live and what schools they wind up in.
That, to me, is the central message of Dr. Lerner's report. And he has done an outstanding job of preparing it. His twenty-five criteria for judging state standards in this domain are a model for any such analysis. (Indeed, for a state that is starting from scratch to write or rewrite its science standards, those criteria would be a fine place to begin.) His appraisal of individual state standards against those criteria was systematic, careful, and rigorous. His five expert consultants played key roles in both stages of the analysis-and broadened the disciplinary base beyond Dr. Lerner's own specialty of physics. We are sincerely grateful to them.
Besides his teaching responsibilities at Cal State, Long Beach, Dr. Lerner is the author of two university-level physics textbooks and numerous other publications in condensed- matter physics, the history of science, and science education. He was a major author and editor of the content sections of the Science Framework for California Public Schools, one of the standards documents reviewed in the following pages. He is also a contributing editor to The Textbook Letter, which evaluates middle- and secondary-school texts in science and other subjects, and a member of the National Faculty for the Humanities, Arts, and Sciences. He has earned our admiration and our gratitude.
In addition to published copies, this report (and its companion appraisals of state standards in other subjects) is available in full on the Foundation's web site: http://www.edexcellence.net. Hard copies can be obtained by calling 1-888-TBF-7474 (single copies are free of charge). The report is not copyrighted and readers are welcome to reproduce it, provided they acknowledge its provenance and do not distort its meaning by selective quotation.
For further information from the author, readers can contact Dr. Lerner by mail at the Department of Physics and Astronomy, California State University, Long Beach, 1250 Bellflower Boulevard, Long Beach, CA 90840; by fax at 562-985-7924; or by e-mail at email@example.com.
The Thomas B. Fordham Foundation is a private foundation that supports research, publications, and action projects in elementary/secondary education reform at the national level and in the vicinity of Dayton, Ohio. Further information can be obtained from our web site or by writing us at 1015 18th Street N.W., Suite 300, Washington, D.C. 20036. (We can also be e-mailed through our web site.) In addition to thanking Dr. Lerner and his advisors, I would like to take this opportunity to express my personal thanks to the Foundation's program manager, Gregg Vanourek, as well as staff members Irmela Vontillius and Michael Petrilli, for their many services in the course of this project, and Robert Champ for his editorial assistance.
Chester E. Finn, Jr. President