The State of State Science Standards

The vast majority of American public school students are not proficient in the level of science learning expected for their age group. The Thomas B. Fordham Institute has issued "The State of Science Standards 2012" as part of an effort to assess the causes of this dismal state of affairs. Here's a map summarizing their results:


State Science Standards Grades, 2012

Notice that some of the battleground states for the "Evolution-Creationism Controversy" have reasonable ratings. Notice also the vast regions of D and F states. In fact, in order to convey the meaning of it all, I've created a new version of the map that signifies all states with D and F rankings with one color, and all states with C or better grades with a different color (The "Pass/Fail" version of the test!):


The Fordham report identifies the reasons for lower than ideal grades on a state by state basis. Remember, these are criticisms of the state science standards used to guide or regulate teaching. These include:

  • An Undermining of Evolution
  • A Propensity to be Vague
  • Poor Integration of Scientific Inquiry
  • Poor Integration of Scientific Inquiry

I looked up Minnesota to see what was said about my state. I was not involved in generating the standards, but I did watch the process and at the time I gave it mixed reviews. According to Fordham:

The Minnesota science standards are like the frustrating student who does excellent work two days a week but shoddy work on the other three. When the standards are "on," they are cogent and challenging. But too often they are marred by vague, incorrect, or grade-inappropriate material, or are missing key content entirely.

I did have some secret in-the-background involvement in the development of Earth and Space science during the previous iteration of Science Standards development, so I was happy to see that we didn't do too badly there:

The Minnesota earth and space science standards are reasonably comprehensive, covering the water cycle, mineral properties, fossils, and natural resources. The basic structure of the solar system is also well covered,...

Integration was certainly what we were looking for. And the Life Science standards did not exactly take it in the neck:

Important life science content is presented quite minimally, but the flow and logic are such as to convey an understanding of the concepts rather than coming across as a list of topics to check off. The inclusion of examples from Kindergarten through eighth grade helps to further explain what students should know and be able to do.

Physical Science and High Shool Physics did not do so well:

The physical science standards are barely passable. While some important content is covered, much is missing--or slighted--and the overall impression is of disorganization and a superficial understanding of the subject matter on the part of the writers.


The high school physics standards are marred by illogical organization. As noted above, prior to high school there is ndiscussion of kinematics in one dimension, let alone two. Yet high school physics students are expected to:

Use vectors and free-body diagrams to describe force, position, velocity and acceleration of objects in two- dimensional space.

Then, immediately afterward, students are asked to:

Apply Newton's three laws of motion to calculate and analyze the effect of forces and momentum on motion.

How does this relate to the item immediately preceding? What are we to make of the mention of momentum? And what follows in the next few items is pure chaos. Unfortunately, this typifies the entire treatment of high school physics.

Chemistry did a little better.

It is an interesting report to browse through, and you can get your PDF copy of it here for free! Also, have a look at this overview from the NCSE.

How did your state do?

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Thanks for sharing this, Greg.
My state--PA--scored a whopping D. I'm not sure we are in the minority when it comes to a huge gap in science literacy rates w/in our state, presumably due more to socioeconomic conditions than state standards.

Thickening the Science Literacy plot ;), Jon Miller (Univ of MI), found that adults in the U.S. are outranked only by Sweden when it comes to "civic science literacy"... I've written about this and reached out to Jon but the methodology and outcomes are still a bit fuzzy to me. Any interest in digging into this particular issue with me? Seems like a very important stat.

Thanks again, Greg,

What is it that makes California exceptional in this group (I'm from Europe and I don't have that much insight into US Education)

Is the first sentence missing a "not?"

I can see JPL pulling up the Texan grade, but how is Princeton outweighed by the Jersey shore?

By Tommi Henriksen (not verified) on 31 Jan 2012 #permalink

qetzal,yes, it was. Thanks.

Do keep in mind that these are the standards being evaluated, not the actual quality of education or student performance. It is all related, of course, but not the same thing.

"Notice that some of the battleground states for the "Evolution-Creationism Controversy" have reasonable ratings"

I live in one of those states (Kansas), and our standards got a "good" rating over all with particular praise for teaching evolution. This was because of our creation\evolution controversy, not in spite of it. The controversy woke people up to the importance not just of biology, but of all of science. Maybe all these creationists are unwittingly doing us a favor?

I saw this on Neurodojo, and one thing Zen Faulkes pointed out is that Fordham Institute is a conservative think-tank. And while they don't appear to be Creationist-leaning, I wonder if there's anyway to see if ideology might have influenced their grades.

Chris, I don't see that, although it is always good to be suspicious of the think tanks. I know it is a "conservative" think tank, but this report is hard on states with low levels of attention to evolution.

Perhaps not all right wing groups have been taken over by the tea party?

Also, I believe the authors of the report have good reputations as scholar, or at least, the one's I know of.

I think there is some useful information in the analysis, but it is buried. The map does not do much for me. The issue is that there is no centralized standard. Every state is different and those that generate the standards are working towards a different goal. The goal of the standards document in California is not (necessarily) the same the goal of the standards in Maine. However, the analysis being done is using a single stated goal and holding all standards documents to that goal. It's like putting Roger Federer through a quarterback challenge and concluding he is a lousy athlete. I wish this issue had been laid out more clearly in the 'The state of science standards 2012'.

That being said, Im glad Minnesota life sciences scored a 6/7, since I helped write that section.

The Fordham report may need some critique. A science educator in Oklahoma for whom I have great respect sent this response in answer to my query about the report:

âFirst, let me tell you that Fordham has never given Oklahoma a grade other than F. Secondly, they do not now, nor have they ever been supporters of the National Science Standards, upon which the Oklahoma Standards were originally based. Third, they have always given "A" or "B" grades to states who write standards that are essentially long lists of facts to be taught and tested. Hence, they give high marks to New York, California and Washington, DC and low marks to states who emphasize science process skills and science concepts over factoids. Fourth, the Fordham Foundation is headed by Chester Finn, who was a Reagan appointee as a deputy Secretary of Education charged with bringing the agency down. His fellow appointee was Diane Ravitch, who has since had a conversion experience and changed her stance 180 degrees. Finally, we may suck, but Oklahoma students outperform students in every one of the southern states rated higher than us by this study when they take the ACT test. We also score better than all of these same states, including Florida and California on the NAEP, despite our poor science standards rating by Fordham .â
Past reports from Fordham and NCSE also gave Oklahoma an âF,â perhaps deserved.
However, one of the main points has been that the standards never used the word âevolution.â In fact, a study of the standards show that evolutionary concepts are fairly well covered. The reason for the avoidance of the âEâ word is purely political â the mention of the word would surely draw the ire of fundamentalist legislators and, perhaps, void the entire work. In workshops for science teachers on teaching evolution, held each year by Oklahomans for Excellence in Science Education ( ) the coverage of evolution required in the teaching standards is emphasized. Despite these facts, there is certainly always room for improvement in the standards, as well as improvement in all of the stateâs education.

Interesting comments.

Fordham gave the us standards an exceent grade in this report, so that point is certainly obviates. This report gives low marks for fact cramming, so that point isn't very relevant to the report itself. Not using the word evolution in biology standards for political reasons, to me earns an F for life science. So that could explain the F grades fot OK. THE REPORT WAS NOT ABOUT TEACHIBG, STUDENT PERFORMANCE, OR ATTITUDES OR PROCEDURES OR WORKSHOPS. I pologize for the all caps, I'm using an iPad too much trouble to correct.. Ok o where was I ... Right, what is done in workshops isn't relevant to the report.

I'm not sure that critique of the report is on the mark

Of course workshops, student performance, attitudes, etc., are not parts of the report, but are relevant to any application of the report. The commenst above were just examples of how sceince educators have tried to get proper science taught despite the state standards.Your comment about the F for political reasons suggests you have not had to deal directly with fundie crazies; as bad as the absence of the word is, the inclusion of the 'evolution' word would have resulted in no approval of the standards. When one has to endure the stupidity of legislatiors such as found in some states, one has to get the best result available under the conditions.

The historical aspects of the political agenda of this report needs to be known. Can we be sure that things have really changed? I hope so. Also, just how was 'fact cramming' minimized in the analysis? Some apparently remain unconvinced.

By vhutchison (not verified) on 31 Jan 2012 #permalink

I have dealt extensively with fundamentalists in many ways at many levels during my 30 years of engagement this issue .. You may need to recalibrate your suggestion box!

NIBMSEITLOE. Thus, leaving the only word that see scribe the central theory of life science out of a life science standard ... Perhaps you don't know, but thest standards are generally many pages in length and ofteden quite specific ... Simply is not an option. At all.

It is valid to examine this report and to look for biases considering the political nature of the sitch and the leanings of Fordham, but the criticism of the reporypt on standards needs to refer to the report and be about standards! I'll leave it to you to parse out such elements from your friend's commentary.

And again, this report is a pot standards. As you point out, this may have little to do with what happens on the ground, though there should eventually be a relationship.

Greg: Your responses are appreciated and understood. However, I do not always equate 'pragmatic politics' with being 'accomodationist', as you probably do. Without being pragmatic we would already have creationst bills as law in this state. So far, and unlike some other states, we have not, but it gets tougher each year. We have four such bills to deal with now.

I definitely do not equate pragmatic politics with accommodation. In fact, I get in trouble from many of my bloggy colleagues for that very reason. I'm very pragmatic.

Insisting that the word "evolution" appear in the state standards for life science is not an issue of pragmatism. The simple truth of the matter is that evolution is central to life science, and, for pragmatic reasons, if you leave the word out it will not be taught at all in many science classrooms. If it requires a fight to get the word in the standards, then that's all there is to it.

Also (and here's where my vast and intensive experience comes in!) there hasn't been much of a fight over the word evolution in standards. That fight hasn't happened in years. The fight now is what OTHER words get put in there (ID, etc.) Having not been involved in your state's standards process I can't say what is going on there, but nationally in general leaving out the word evolution is not only academically, ethically, and scientifically impossible (it would be like leaving out the word "earth" in and "earth science class") but it should no longer be necessary.

Also, you no longer have to be pragmatic to not have evolution bills in your state. All you (well, they) need is to follow the law. The case law on this is more firmly established than Roe v. Wade. This is no longer a knock down drag out fight among major forces. This is now a big, never ending game of whack-a-mole. It's been that way since Dover (earlier, really, but Dover brought us to a higher level.)

I totally get what you are saying, but it just ain't true these days. If anyone from the NCSE would like to chime in here, I'd like to know what a rep from NCSE would suggest ... but I think I already know, and I think no one at NCSE would ever think that leaving "evolution" (as a term) out of the biology standards (and presumably including evolution anyway somehow) would be acceptable or necessary.

Even in Oklahoma.

Funny thing that one of the chapters I had to read for one of my classes in an education class this week was on "inquiry-based" teaching in science.

As soon as I saw you post, Greg, I went right to North Carolina's section (and printed it up to take to class this evening). One of the biggest things that gave us a low grade was that the standards mention "inquiry" but don't provide a framework for inquiry-based learning. They said the standards also provide "little guidance as to how to incorporate inquiry in the classroom".

As future teachers, we are being taught that inquiry-based learning is critical to science education. I've noticed the standards lack just what this document shows. I believe the state is about to start using what are now called "Essential Standards" which aren't really much different from the current Standard Course of Study.

As soon as I get a chance, I'm heading back to the pdf to look at what California and the A graded states are doing.

Just for fun, I also sent the link to our Governor, who is very supportive of education, but sadly, won't be running for a second term.

By Lynn Wilhelm (not verified) on 31 Jan 2012 #permalink

Greg: I agree that the words should not be avoided when one has a choice. It appears that you do not understand the situation here. Either accept the deletion of the word (but with evolutionary concepts still required) or have no teaching standards approved. That choice was not ours, or even the science teachers involved in getting the new standards approved. Those teachers on the committee to draft the standards (including several Board members of Oklahomans for Excellence in Science Education) faught VERY hard for inclusion of 'evolution,' but were told clearly by State officials that it would not pass muster for obvious political reasons supported by previous history. What would be worse for science education, no standards at all or absence of the word, but still with standards that include evolutionary concepts? You might choose no standards, but the absence would be even worse.

I do not know how much experience you have had in actually lobbying and working at the grassroots level (personally lobbying legislators,giving talks to local groups, writing op/eds and letters to editors in local newspapers, posting pro-evolution items on local blogs, etc., but sometimes pragmatic politics are the best we can do. I speak on this after twelve years of such efforts. We probably may never agree on this, but so be it.

BTW, I usually do agree with almost all of your posts and read them daily. We just may need to agree to disagree on this. At least this will be my final comments on the topic!

By vhutchison (not verified) on 31 Jan 2012 #permalink

I have done my share of grassroots lobbying, but not in Oklahoma. It sounds like it is pretty bad there.

When did this particular bit of negotiation happen? When were the current science standards (sans the word "evolution") worked out?

I remember a big to-do in OK in or around 2000 or 2001. If that is what we are talking about, then I can see why this would have been the case. Kitzmiller was decided in 2005.

Subsequent to Kitzmiller the situation you describe would be very difficult to imagine. Before it, it was happening everywhere.

Greg: Just to answer your question: The new Oklahoma teaching standards were just adopted within the last few months. However, the same problems obtained several years ago when the standards were revised. Part of the problem now is the state Superintendent of Education, an ultra-conservative Republican whose only experience was in starting two charter schools. Many believe that she is pushing the far-right anti public education agenda. This is the reddest of all states - every county voted for McCain, every elected state official is Republican and the Legislature is now dominated in both houses by Republicans, many newer ones are of the extreme tea party types. This has not been easy for those with any liberal positions!

By vhutchison (not verified) on 31 Jan 2012 #permalink

Well, it sounds like you've got it pretty bad. I wonder if it would have been possible, back channel-wise, to have gotten "evolution" in the standards along with "Intelligent Design" as a compromise. Then, later, after the standards are set (and usually there is a reigning statute, yes, saying when they can be changed?) a moderately simple trip to the Tenth Federal District Court to get the ID part removed surgically.

Congratulations on your award, by the way.

"Insisting that the word "evolution" appear in the state standards for life science is not an issue of pragmatism. The simple truth of the matter is that evolution is central to life science, and, for pragmatic reasons, if you leave the word out it will not be taught at all in many science classrooms. If it requires a fight to get the word in the standards, then that's all there is to it."

My state, Florida, adopted new science standards in 2008. For the first time in Florida's history our standards have the word evolution in it, and also the standards make evolution one of the big ideas of science. When the public was asked for their input, preachers, politicians, school board members, and other professional idiots complained about the word evolution, as if there is something wrong with teaching the foundation of biology in a biology classroom. Thanks to relentless ridicule the uneducated morons lost and the standards were approved with virtually no changes.

I was expecting our new standards would get an A from Fordham but we got a D. The good news was they wrote "Evolution is very well covered." and "Even human evolution is treated -- a rarity in state science standards."

Human evolution is a rarity in state science standards. This is disgraceful. There can be no other scientific fact more interesting than how our species developed. If a student thought science was boring, tedious, and not interesting, he or she might fall in love with science if human evolution was taught. But most states don't bother to mention it in their standards.

I'm interested in this problem because despite being a student at one of the best high schools in America, I never heard the word evolution mentioned in my biology class. This was in 1964/1965 and it seems like there's been very little progress in the past 47 years. Most students are still being cheated like I was.

The only possible solution I can think of is the complete eradication of the Christian death cult from this country, a virtually impossible but very worthy goal.

Hey Greg, one of my comments seems to be in moderation. Is that new? Can you rescue it?

By Lynn Wilhelm (not verified) on 01 Feb 2012 #permalink

Lynn, you touch on an interesting point.

A set of standards for life science could say "Use inquiry based learning and other appropriate techniques to cover biology as a field of study unified by Evolutionary Theory, and do so with reference to important concepts for healthy and respectful living and informed citizenship" and be done with it! Not telling teachers HOW to do that is not necessary if teachers know hot to do this.

IOW, the nature of the standards might vary across states in the way in which the role of the standards is seen in the system of education.

Sorry for the moderation. I have no idea why some comments are put in the moderation bin, plus for some reason where comments get put has changed and I sometimes forget to look there!

For those whose acronym fu is just developing:

NIBMSEITLOE = "Nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of evolution."

By Chris Winter (not verified) on 05 Feb 2012 #permalink

By the way, NIBMSEITLOE is an acronym because it is pronounceable. If you can pronounce "Sadeq Gotbsadeh" you can pronounce NIBMSEITLOE.

"Where have you gone, Sadeq Gotbsadeh? A nation turns its lonely eyes to you. Woo woo woo."

Please excuse the digression.

By Chris Winter (not verified) on 05 Feb 2012 #permalink

In The Death and Life of the Great American School System, Diane Ravitch writes mostly about No Child Left Behind and its effects on schools. But early on in the book she discusses the movement to get curriculum standards written by the states.

According to her, the controversy that developed had a chilling effect, and subsequently what most of the states produced was vague to the point of uselessness.

Judging by the content of this thread, that situation has improved considerably.

By Chris Winter (not verified) on 05 Feb 2012 #permalink