U.S. school science standards pronounced “dismal”

November 16, 2012 • 5:23 am

The conclusion above came to my attention from Scientific American‘s “Budding Scientist” website, which has a report by Anna Kuchment with the frank title, “U.S. state science standards are ‘mediocre to awful.'”

Kuchment’s piece is based on a report by the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, “The State of State Science Standards, 2012,” released on January 31. The authors of that are a distinguished lot: Lawrence S. Lerner, Ursula Goodenough, John Lynch, Martha Schwartz, and Richard Schwartz, with an NAEP (National Association of Education Progress) review by Paul R. Gross.)

You can download the pdf of the report here, or just skip that and just see where your state stands if you live in the U.S. (Although the report is 217 pages long, all but eleven pages of that is either description of methodology or assessments of each of the 50 states.)

The conclusions (those in quotations are taken directly from the report):

  • “The results of this rigorous analysis paint a fresh—but still bleak—picture. A majority of the states’ standards remainvmediocre to awful. In fact, the average grade across all states is—once again—a thoroughly undistinguished C. (In fact, it’s a low C.) In twenty-six jurisdictions, the science standards earn a D or below. Yet this very weakness in what states expect of their schools, teachers, and students in science suggests that a purposeful focus on improving—or replacing—today’s standards could be a key part of a comprehensive effort to boost science performance.”
  • “Two jurisdictions—California and the District of Columbia—have standards strong enough to earn straight As from our reviewers. Four other states—Indiana, Massachusetts, South Carolina, and Virginia—earn A-minuses, as does the NAEP assessment framework. And seven states earn grades in the B range. But this also means that just thirteen jurisdictions—barely 25 percent, and fewer than in 2005—earn a B or better for setting appropriately clear, rigorous, and specific standards.”
  • The average grade hasn’t changed since 2005, since those states that improved their standards are balanced by a slightly larger number that lowered them.
  • Why is the U.S. doing so poorly? The authors single out four problems with state standards:
  1. The undermining of evolution through a variety of methods, both involving the legislature (as in Louisiana’s “academic freedom” act that allows the teaching of intelligent design creationism) and more subtle incursions, like Colorado and West Virginia’s mandate that the “strengths and weaknesses” of evolution be discussed, while of course other “theories” don’t come in for such treatment.
  2. Vague standards that give teachers little guidance. The report mentions, as two examples, “A middle school teacher in New Hampshire, for example, will come face to face with the following: ‘Identify energy as a property of many substances.’ Pennsylvania offers the equally baffling ‘Explain the chemistry of metabolism.’ Such empty statements can do little to inform curriculum development or instruction, and give no guidance to assessment developers.”
  3. The promotion of “inquiry based learning” without any guidance to teachers how to implement it. The report notes, “Iowa schoolchildren are directed to: ‘Make appropriate personal/lifestyle/technology choices, evaluate, observe, discuss/debate, recognize interactions and interdependencies at all levels, explain, describe environmental effects of public policy, choose appropriate course(s) of action.‘ Such statements are devoid of any teachable content and leave teachers with no guidance as to how they can incorporate genuine scientific inquiry skills into their instruction.”  Further, many states say nothing about the history of science, which is essential for teaching students how science works and how to be critical.
  4. There’s not enough math.  As the report notes, things are far too qualitative, perhaps catering to students’ “mathophobia”:  “Mathematics is integral to science. Yet few states make the link between math and science clear—and many seem to go to great lengths to avoid mathematical formulae and equations altogether. The result is usually a clumsy mishmash of poor writing that could much more easily and clearly be expressed in numbers.”

It’s no surprise, then, that among 15 year olds tested in 65 countries, U.S. students ranked 23rd in science proficiency, while only 21% of U.S. twelfth-graders (17 and 18 year olds) are at or above the “proficient” standard in science.

This is a very thorough report: the most thorough I’ve seen from any organization. There are an average of 3.5 pages of evaluation for each of the U.S.’s 50 states. If you’re a parent, or simply a citizen concerned about the condition of American science education, look at your state’s standards and, if so moved, complain!

Here’s the U.S. map with each state’s grade. Note that although the South is low as expected, the midwest, along with Oregon and Idaho, rank even lower. And an F for Wisconsin? This was a surprise to me. Read the state-by-state evaluations to see why.

49 thoughts on “U.S. school science standards pronounced “dismal”

    1. Yes, it has a great deal to do with the education approach they adopted in 2005, which sets definite goals for what students should know or be able to do at the end of each grade from kindergarten to 12th grade in math, English, science, and social studies.

      Although, it will only be a brief success with Jindal’s plan for privatizing public education being pushed through the legislature this spring.

    2. These standards bear little relationship to what is being taught. I’m quite sure the map is meaningless. I’m the Director of the first-year chemistry program at Texas A&M University. As a diagnostic experiment, we gave our incoming general chemistry students (~4000 of them) an exam to see whether we can, with such an exam, predict how students will do in our large first-year chem courses (3000 in Chem 101 and about 1000 in a one-semester Chem-for-engineers course). Declared chem majors and honors students take more demanding courses, but their numbers are small.

      We gave a 16-question multiple-choice (5 choices per question) quiz in the first week of classes this year. To come up with questions, we first looked at an exam the state used to evaluate students at the end of a one-year high school chemistry class. All of our students are supposed to have had a year of high school chemistry as a prerequisite. We dumbed the exam down – significantly. (To be fair, for most of our incoming students, it has been more than two years since they took chemistry as a sophomore.) Several questions were the kind things I knew about after reading a 6th grade book about atoms (e.g., Which particles are in the nucleus of atoms? Electrons, protons, neutrons, etc…). The 101 students’ scores averaged in the low 40s, and the engineering wannabes averaged in the low 50s (remember, random responses yield an average of 20).

      Texas A&M and UT at Austin get the best of the high school class who stay in state and attend public universities. The stories all freshman science instructors have heard about what goes on in secondary school science classes are legion. One thing we’re pretty sure of though: Louisiana is quite a bit worse.

      1. Unfortunately, what you see reflects the student’s experience with what their parents expect from high school and the school’s instruction of their kids. Parents who are intimidated by math and science don’t know enough to, in turn, challenge their kids to see school as a source for a foundation of an education but not the only source of knowledge. My son has preferred to read math and science books for years-I had to go to a parent-teacher conference when he was in second grade because he refused to read the required amount of fiction books. Did I do the easy thing and insist my kid read Harry Potter? No, I asked how reading any book could be a violation of their requirements. Needless to say, the teachers couldn’t answer. Of course, they undermined their own argument with their prefacing the conference by offering the fact that Tim was the only person in the entire class who got an awkwardly worded math question right. (The ol’ “kiss-kick-kiss” principle). Tim is looking forward to attending A&M as an incoming freshman 2017 but he’s more interested in physics at this point.

  1. It is, perhaps, not much of a surprise that the grade map loosely follows the same contouring of the red state / blue state map.

    In other words, what we’re seeing is, basically, the difference between the faith-based community’s approach to education and the reality-based community’s approach.

    Now, also overlay maps of income distribution and other signs of success….



    1. Not even loosely. If I’d had to guess, I expect I wouldn’t have come within one grade with more than 20% of the states. At least it’s pleasing to see that I grew up in an A- state (VA). Not pleasing to find that I’m living in a D state (PA) tho.

      But that may explain why Rick Santorum opted to have his kids schooled by an exceptionally expensive electronic hookup to his home district in PA (whose school district footed the bill) vs. letting them go to the excellent public schools in Northern VA.

  2. Every state’s science teaching is under attack by evangelicals who think science is growing out of control and threatening them, as evidenced by the growing secular population and increased number of court decisions against them. I’m not sure who is winning the battle, but I realize my support of FFRF, CFI, and AU is vital if we don’t want to get swamped by superstition. Indiana evangelical politicians are about to engage in another attempt to get Creationism into the public school classroom. This is what they think their constituents want and what will get them reelected.

  3. I’m embarrassed that my state, Wisconsin, gets an F. It seems to be that our standards are so vapid as to barely exist. Which poses a question…

    Are absent standards better or worse than bad standards? (by which I mean standards that endorse nonsense like Creationism)

    1. Wisconsin’s standards are nearly 20 years old and unreadable and unintelligible. I’m not at all surprised with the “F”, Wisconsin DPI is still something of a mess.

      That said, in practice, it would seem that the results are much better than the standards. Wisconsin does better than an “F” in science education; little of that having to do with following any standards but largely having some good teachers…though we’ll see if that’s able to continue as political decisions have made teaching a less desirable career in the state.

      Conversely, I’d suspect that many states earning good grades – particularly when it comes to the teaching of evolution – don’t execute those standards. Despite the differences in grades, I’d bet students in Wisconsin are more likely to get a thorough and accurate delivery of evolution content that are students in South Carolina or Louisiana.

      1. As someone who went to a rural public high school in Wisconsin, I have to agree with you. I was taught evolution, great physics, chemistry, decent math, and good English. Most of my teachers were excellent and I have great admiration for them to this day.

    2. For what it’s worth, my Wisconsin public high school was awesome and would probably get an A. But not everybody can be Madison West.

  4. Oh, no! By naming the states with A’s and B’s, they have made targets of them for the part of the Republican Party that everybody wishes would go away.

  5. “It’s no surprise, then, that among 15 year olds tested in 65 countries, U.S. students ranked 23rd in science proficiency, while only 21% of U.S. twelfth-graders (17 and 18 year olds) are at or above the “proficient” standard in science.”

    I find it odious that this mythology is being promoted by a scientist. When all US students are compared to other countries, we rank 23rd (maybe, TIMMS ranks us 8th, and 11th at the 4th and 8th grade levels respectively). But science is not taught at the national level but at the state level. When compared by state, Massachusetts and Minnesota rank at the top when compared to other countries (like Singapore and Hong Kong).

    In the US, MA (A), MN (C), NJ (D), NH (D), and NY (B+)are the top 5 performing states on science test scores (data here and letters in () reflect Fordham’s standards grade). FYI the bottom 5 states are NM (C), AL (D), LA (B), WV (D), and MS (C). Not much of a correlation.

    1. “Odious”? Really?

      Exactly what are you talking about? Just because education standards are created by states does not make comparing national averages to one another false, much less “odious” or mythological.

      1. Yes, national averages are a reasonable measure (if the values that are averaged should be weighted by the population of each state). But Lorax does have a valid point about the lack of correlation between standards and performance, as pointed out also by DR J under Comment 6.

      2. The default is to use national averages to uniformly disparage an entire student population. However, every state is distinct and handle public education independently. A better comparison would be the US with Europe (which is more closely matched based on size, population, and independence of school education) than comparing the US with Sweden.

        1. As Lou Jost pointed out, you make a reasonable point regarding standards/performance correlations. My objection is to your framing of the conversation with the terms “odious” and “mythology” which just unreasonably poisons the discussion.

          There is nothing wrong with comparing one nation’s performance to that of others. And there is no natural reason to conclude that a US/Europe comparison is inherently “better”.

          1. I just noted some reasons why comparing the US with other nations is problematic and why comparing US states to other countries (that have centralized public education) or comparing the US to Europe to go the other way is better. You can ignore that if you want, but it is disingenuous to say there is ‘nothing wrong with it’.

            This is where the ‘mythology’ of the US being so far behind other countries comes from. Yes, parts of the US are behind but other parts are at the top. Because the states act independently regarding education they should be assessed and compared independently. It is akin to lambasting the US minimum wage based on the average wage of all the countries in North America.

            The difference between the states and their performance in world-wide comparison is well known and often discussed outside of right-wing echo chambers. There is a vocal contingent of people in the US that fight against public education and try to undermine public schools at every opportunity. These country by country comparisons are one ‘data point’ they use to make across the board conclusions that schools are failing. Based on these points I stand by my statement that it “merit(s) strong dislike, aversion, or intense displeasure” or is odious that Jerry reinforces this, in my opinion, incorrect viewpoint.

            1. I don’t disagree with regard to the right-wing attempts to discredit and destroy public education. But I think you are uncritically lumping your allies in with those yokels.

              Nor am I ignoring anything. If someone is advocating ignoring stuff here is is you. You may not like how certain statistics are used by our mutual foes, but that does not falsify the statistics. The existence of evidence that some states do well compared to some countries does not mean that as a nation we don’t have a serious problem with the quality of science education in the US. I’d argue that the reason we have this problem comes down to (largely) the influence of religion and the reluctance of politicians to stand up for good education. Hell, the Texas Republicans even put hostility to critical thinking in their platform.

              I’m sorry you don’t seem able to distinguish friend from foe here.

    2. I think comparing across countries is fair , reasonable and simple.

      The federal US government has (at least in theory) the power to lay down the rules for the entire country. If the federal government decides that these rules are to de decided at individual state level, that is still a national-level decision. If that in turn allows some states to improve and others to fail, I see no reason why this then should not be count towards an overall national performance.

      It looks like you’re trying to arbitrarily chop up the US just because the results don’t suit you, which is special pleading, which is a logical fallacy. Following this pattern, the ‘above-average’ parts of any survey can argue they should be separated from the ‘below-average parts’, for any plausible reason, ad infinitum.

      If this is allowed, why not allow e.g. the Goteborg area of Sweden to be distinguished from the rest of Sweden if they have different rules for education, or the four parts of the UK between each other, or Harvard University split from the rest of the US data?

      1. You are incorrect that the federal government has the power to degree standards. In theory I suppose the federal government could, but the UN could also invade and take over the US…in theory.

        The fact remains that in the US, education decisions are made at the state level. You can deny it if you want to, but that is the fact of the matter. Remember the outcry over the department of education in Texas changing science and history standards? Even gbjames noted that the state of Texas republican platform is that critical teaching should not be taught in Texas schools.

        The state of Minnesota (does exceedingly well in science and math) has no say in how Mississippi approaches or teaches science in the public schools (which does exceedingly poor).

        I am not arbitrarily partitioning the US into state, that was done long before I was born nor was I involved in the discussion that led to the differences in power between the state and federal governments. Maybe you think it is special pleading, but I disagree and assume you are not familiar with how the US power structure is distributed. Those issues matter.

        1. The federal government can create national standards. For the most part, it chooses not too. However, there are some national standards of sorts. NCLB, along with the associated testing, is one type of national standard which is enforced through funding. How it is implemented, though, varies by state.

          Likewise, the states are creating another “national” standard via the common core standards. Most states are going to adopt it. What affect it will have is unclear because, as many have noted, what is really taught differs a great deal at the local level.

          Standards are not the curriculum. They are merely a guide. An educator who only teaches to the standard, and not beyond, is not doing their job.

  6. The creators of this map should also get an F for their color choices. Why not make it gradual go from red to blue, so that the viewer can see trends easier?

  7. Thanks for discussion of this report. I think it exposes two general weaknesses in our educational system. One is the tendency in curriculum towards breadth instead of depth. You can’t just “add more” science and math in schools and expect great changes. School subjects in other countries, as I understand it, are more narrowly selected and more deeply studied. Second, about lack of guidance for teachers, teacher preparation in the US tends towards an academic model, with courses in the history and principles of education, etc. Teacher education would benefit from a move towards the medical model, towards a stronger emphasis on apprenticeship and hands-on practice. That way, a new emphasis on teaching science would bring with it a clear focus on new skills and techniques for doing so.

    1. I suspect its the same here. A few years ago one of my friends took a “teaching the teachers” job, but left after a year as he thought it was so useless.

      Lots of waffle about “theories of education”, which seemed to be based on the findings of one small study 25 years ago, and minimal practical content.

    2. I was thinking that the underlying problem has (also) to do with the ‘democratisation’ of the education system.

      In my home country, the Netherlands, and I’m pretty sure in the UK where I live too, the education standards are decided upon by a government-appointed group of specialists in the respective fields, then layed down nationally*.

      From what I understand from Jerry’s regular postings is that in the US, the standards are open to negotiation, haggling, discussion, and can be decided upon by decidedly non-specialists that are voted in democratically to general political functions, and then *somehow* get appointed to things like ‘Select Science Committees’.

      That’s how I understand that that pastor who claimed evolution (?) was “a lie from hell” gets to be part of a science committee.

      Overall science and democracy do not mix well, hence poor science standards.

      Or am I missing something?

      1. *A few years back the then-minister for education in the Netherlands made some off-handed remarks about potentially allowing some creation/ID-like sections to be introduced into the biology curriculum. She was a member of the main christian party.

        She was swiftly and roundly told by everybody, including her own party (! yes they are Christians but they are secular in their politics) that these decisions were not up to politicians to make, that creationism/ID was really not science anyway, and that she should shut up, which to her credit she did, and there has been no mention of adding anything non-evolutionary to the biology curriculum since.

      2. The only point I would add is about capitalism intertwined with the democratization. State education boards make decisions about textbooks, and textbook decisions in big states like Texas drive much of the textbook industry. My experience is in English, and high school English texts were-and probably still are-backward about grammar and writing conventions largely because state boards were the same.

  8. What really grinds my gears is the way creationists say that they want “democracy” in the classroom and that all “points of view” are given equal weight and validity, when they in fact don’t want that.
    They don’t want that, first, because they don’t want creationism to be questioned and tested to the same standarts as science normally is.
    And second, because they exclude all other points of view from the picture, like for example, teaching that all life was created by Krishna 3.7 billion years ago and that human beings have been living on Earth for 3.7 billion years.

    I seriously doubt that when a creationist’s child gets sick with leukemia, that they will want all points of view on the issue to be presented with equal validity, including the opinions of mechanics, surgeons, oncologists, pizza delivery people, bakers, physicists and super models.

    No, when science serves the best interests of a creationist, it is a brutal meritoracy. When it serves the best interests of evidence and empiricism, suddenly the opinions of a plumber on the validity of the Big Bang theory have the same value as the opinions of Stephen Hawking.

  9. The last report like this was involved though. Yes some of the standards were crap but in N.H. For example, the low grade was for not explaining evolution very well, and even Massachusetrs has some of Darwin’s concepts censored. Even if Creationism isn’t mentioned. I’m sad for N?H. Where I grew up but it’s a number of variables.

    But…..yay, Massachusetts!

  10. You give too much weight to the standards.

    American students score poorly in the aggregate due to poverty. This explanation is what is not surprising. America has the highest rates of student poverty (>1/5) in the developed world. Control for poverty and American students tend to rank first class on international assessments.

    The distribution of the standards does not seem to correspond to achievement, unfortunately. The northeast tends to outperform the rest of the country, though they are given lower scores here to their apparently awful standards. Not coincidentally, the northeast tends to be 1) liberal and 2) wealthier in the aggregate.

    I cannot shake the suspicious that the Institute wants to applaud states that rely on standardized testing and other edu reforms it approves of. I can’t think of any other reason for Louisiana, which does have schools that teach creationism, to score so highly. The phrase “rigorous analysis” is usually a tip off.

    Regardless, the standards can be raised to any level of scrutiny. Unfortunately, teachers will still struggle to teach and students will struggle to learn these high standards if they work and study in communities that are 1) struggling to meet basic needs and 2) that threaten to fire teachers and send children to hell for mentioning or understanding concepts like evolution.

    1. I think you are right, at least mostly right. Still, I can’t let states off for lax standards for science. Good standards aren’t enough. And teaching to tests is generally a bad idea. But that doesn’t mean standards are a bad thing.

      As for Louisiana, I don’t think creationism has quite yet made it into the curriculum (though I may be wrong here). Isn’t this still something making it through the legislature?

      Ironic that Bobby Jindal, who is pushing creationism, would be saying the Republicans have to stop being “the stupid party”. (head-slap).

      1. “But that doesn’t mean standards are a bad thing.”


        As for Jindal, my understanding is that it’s already in some textbooks and his voucher program is intended to send public dollars to private (religious) schools.

  11. I have to say this study seems more or less useless to me. They’ve examined the science standards of various states but made no effort to actually assess the quality of the education kids actually receive.

    My home state, Wisconsin, gets an F not because it has poor standards but because the state doesn’t promulgate statewide standards. Yet there’s regular (some would say too much) testing and schools are held to standards.

    Do you really think science education would be better in states that less adequately fund their public schools and where evangelicals have consistently attacked the foundations of science education just because the state wrote down what they wanted schools to do?

  12. Jerry, I think I detect some bias coming through your write-up here. “The South is low as expected…” Compared to what, and why is that “expected”? The only state that scores as high as A- that is entirely north of the Mason-Dixon line is Massachusetts, whereas the core-Southern states of South Carolina and Virginia also received grades of A-. By “Southern”, I assume that you mean Deep South, but the Deep South states seem to average a bit better than the Northeast or the Southwest, and much better than the Northwest or (as you point out) the Mid-west. I’ll happily agree that the standards are pretty poor all over, but I think the only way to pick out the Southern states as having lower standards than any other region on this map is if you start out with that preconceived notion. This is a national problem, and people need to stop thinking of it as a “Southern” problem.

  13. “There’s not enough math. As the report notes, things are far too qualitative, perhaps catering to students’ ‘mathophobia’: ”Mathematics is integral to science.”

    Perhaps not a few of them also have “sciencephobia”?

    Too many students don’t know sufficient math facts, and can’t or most determinedly won’t trouble themselves to show, using stylus and paper, how to add, e.g., 1/4 + 1/2 = 3/4, or 1/3 + 1/2 = 5/6, let alone be able to do it mentally, as they ought with such simple fractions.

    They have memorized how to input the correct sequence of symbols into a calculator to get the answer to the above problems but cannot independently check their answers to be sure they did not accidentally make an incorrect input. This reflects an enthusiasm for technological gadgets and games, but a disdain for the underlying mathematical and scientific fundamentals on which they’re based. They vociferously oppose teachers’ efforts to get them to do otherwise.

    Beyond students, how does this attention-deficited, bread-and-circuses U.S. culture in general currently compare with other cultures regarding the importance it attaches to science and math intellectual curiosity and academic excellence?

    Has there recently been an update of the NSF science literacy survey of Americans of several years ago? Lawrence Krauss has frequently cited the following question from that survey – correctly answered by approximately 50% of American adults – in his critique of U.S. education and science and math literacy:

    “T or F: the Earth goes around the sun and takes a year to do it.”

    (BTW, as a matter of principle and self-respect, ought any humanities Ph.D. tenured professor or U.S. senator be able to solve 2x + 1 = 3?)

    1. I think even among working scientists, math illiteracy is rampant, especially in biology. Most of the biology graduate students I have taught do not even know what a logarithm is, or how to solve an equation that contains a logarithm. Their understanding of probability and statistics is even worse. In some universities there are even movements afoot (led by biologists) to abolish the calculus requirement for biology majors. Entire subfields of biology are based on bad mathematical and statistical foundations, and large segments of the biological literature (including some core subjects in evolution and conservation biology) are pure crap as a result. I wonder what we can do to improve this situation? It seems even more vital to fix mathematical illiteracy in scientists than in the general public.

      1. ” . . . and large segments of the biological literature (including some core subjects in evolution and conservation biology) are pure crap as a result.”

        Apparently the mathematical portion of the “self-correcting mechanism” of the scientific method is not adequately functioning.

        “It seems even more vital to fix mathematical illiteracy in scientists than in the general public.”

        Concur, except that the baseline standard of math literacy the comparatively mathematically-illiterate general public and non-STEM-educated policy makers expect of (what they perceive to be their “handmaiden”) scientists, engineers and technologists is far higher than what they expect of themselves.

        The general public certainly presumes to expect that some nominal per centage of the general public predisposed to math and science will do the math and science heavy lifting necessary to become the STEM types who have been and are responsible for creating and improving the material aspects of modern civilization.

        There’s at least one math education prof out there who believes we shouldn’t waste our time teaching fractions to the general population of students, what with what is becoming a more decimally-oriented culture very predisposed to punching in multiples of 10 in some memorized sequence on a calculator. His position is that only a comparative few will become STEM types. Yet the public expects its other comparatively more modest “handmaidens” like health care personnel and carpenters and bakers to be competent in fractions on its behalf.

  14. Education?
    In Texas, if you can drive a pickup, wear your baseball cap backward, drink beer while you’re driving and run stop signs, you’re educated. Oh, yeah, you might have to go to church once in a while and get a cheerleader pregnant to actually receive your high school diploma.

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