How Strong Are Your State’s Science Standards?

April 2000
by Sheila Gibson

The Kansas State Board of Education (BOE) greeted the coming millennium by voting its state science curriculum into the 19th century. Virtually all references to evolution-not just in biology, but in geology and cosmology as well-were ripped out of the draft update curriculum presented to the board last May. The tragedy is that up until the state BOE vote, Kansas did everything right.

A 27-member team of scientists, experts, and public and Catholic school teachers labored for a year to produce the 100-page document. The Kansas Science Education Standards, Fifth Working Draft, in its original form, was one of the strongest and best science curriculums in America . . . until it was presented to the 10-member Kansas BOE for review. Dr. Lawrence Lerner is emeritus professor of physics at the University of California, Long Beach. He critiques state science standards for the Fordham Foundation, a school reform advocacy non-profit based in Washington, D.C. His January 2000 updated report on America’s standards tells the sad tale of Kansas.

The BOE ‘gutted the document . . . reducing biology to natural history, geology to rock collecting, and astronomy to star-gazing,’ Lerner wrote. Added in its place was ‘nonsense of a pseudoscientific bent’ and ‘ignorant mischief.’ He called the BOE-edited standards ‘a disservice and an insult to the young people of Kansas.’

“Dorothy went from Kansas to Oz seeking wonders and there found empty pseudoscience. She had the good sense to return to Kansas. Sadly, the State Board of Education seems to wish to issue a one-way ticket to all the state’s children,” he concluded.
He gave the standards an ‘F’, ranking it dead last among states which submitted curriculums substantial enough for review in the January 2000 report.
Kansas is not alone in its backwards march. The Oklahoma House of Representatives voted April 5th to require biology textbooks used in public schools to proclaim “that human life was created by one God of the universe.” The state Textbook Committee had originally wanted a disclaimer noting that evolution was “a controversial theory.”

Embracing evolution is not enough. New Mexico’s pro-evolution actions of last fall couldn’t save it from an ‘F’ grade. Their standards were poor regardless.
New England is home to a wealth of outstanding colleges and universities, but that doesn’t necessarily make us any less vulnerable. The first step in preventing a Kansas cyclone from happening here is assessing how vulnerable we are.

NESS investigated the state science standards of the region, using Lerner’s reports as a guide, and obtaining further comments from him in a phone interview. Two problem areas are painfully obvious in Lerner’s report. Their names are Maine and New Hampshire. But overall, New England performed well.

Good News, But . . .

Lerner ranked three of the six states in the region among the top 10 best science curriculums in America: Massachusetts placed fifth, while Rhode Island and Connecticut ranked ninth and tenth.

Skeptics will be delighted with Lerner’s strict criteria demanding that states keep pseudoscience and quackery out of their curriculums. He requires that “the standards must not accept as scientific, or encourage, pseudoscientific or scientifically discredited constructs such as quack medical doctrines (e.g. homeopathy, reflexology), vaguely defined ‘energy fields’ or ‘auras’, creationism and other nonscientific cosmologies, UFO visits, astrology, or mysterious ‘life forces’.”

A score of three on Lerner’s 0-3 scale means “the criterion is met almost always or always, and in a perceptive and thoughtful manner.” All six of the New England states scored three out of three. He includes creationism among the pseudosciences, which means more good news for New England. None of the six states deliberately downplay or omit evolution as does Kansas and Oklahoma.

In his evaluation of the 46 available state science standards, Lerner considered 25 criteria, grouped in five major categories: purpose, expectations, and audience; organization; coverage and content; quality; and negative criteria.

According to his March 1998 report, a good standards document is “clearly written and intelligible to all those who may reasonably have an interest in reading it, and can readily serve as a basis for writing assessment instruments. It is well-organized. It covers the sciences thoroughly (at a level appropriate to the students) and correctly, in a way that makes the structures of the sciences clear. It makes strong but realistic demands on the students. It does not attempt to peddle pseudoscience as the real thing, and it does not foster an antiscientific, anti-technological, or anti-intellectual worldview.”

Good standards should also be precise, accurate, and free of scientific error. They should include laboratory experience and require students to express scientific concepts in both mathematical language as well as written essays. Standards should also address the role played by scientific theory, the relationship between theory and experimentation, and how theory is used in terms of scientific interpretation and prediction.

Lots of things can drag down the quality of a state standards document, vagueness chief among these. “Vague standards are in some respects worse than no standards, because they can mislead the public into thinking the state has done something that it in fact has not,” write Chester E. Finn Jr. and Michael J. Petrilli in the opening to the January 2000 report. ‘Laundry list disease,’ a tendency to satisfy teaching goals by merely listing a bunch of concepts kids should learn in certain grades, is another. Lists are of little value without explanations of why the concepts are important and how they build upon scientific ideas introduced in earlier grades.

Evasion of biological evolution is another big problem nationwide. “Some states treat it gingerly or not at all. Some never use the word but do as good a job as possible given that restriction. Other states touch on the subject as briefly as possible inserting one or two items at grade 8, or (more commonly) during high school, as if the subject were a curious sidelight of biology. A few states insert items involving creationist buzzwords as micro- and macro-evolution, as though this minor distinction were worthy of specific mention,” Lerner writes in the January 2000 report.

Students are sorely cheated by this practice. “First, they rob the student of an understanding of the vast field of the life sciences. Second, they make it difficult or impossible for the student to see how science works, mislead the student as to what science is and is not, and convey the misconception that biology is somehow not as ‘scientific’ as physics or chemistry,” he writes.

Keep in mind that this assessment deals with statewide standards. Science teaching at individual schools will vary widely. Parents should meet with their child’s science teachers, read the textbooks, and ask pointed questions about the lessons being taught. The school’s teachings could be solid despite the state having a bad grade. If the school is bad, parents can use the science standards as ammunition to demand that the school bring itself in line with the requirements laid out in the state curriculum. Read on for the state report cards.

No Mental Munchkins Here
Raw Score: 70 out of 75
Letter Grade: B +

The Constitution state’s standards are ‘brief, easy to read, correct as to facts, and clear in its expectations of students’, Lerner writes. Better still, ‘evolution is treated as the organizing principle of the life sciences, and it is possible to perceive biological evolution as a part of the overall history of the universe, solar system, and the earth,’ he states in the 1998 report. Connecticut fell short of an ‘A’ because its standards are afflicted with ‘laundry list disease’, and suffered from a few small, but irksome errors.

Also, the document available for review in 1998 was still in the drafting stage, so his assessment could only be provisional. The draft did not include treatments of high school biology, chemistry, and physics courses. Connecticut did not furnish an updated document in time for Lerner’s January 2000 report.

If I Only Had a Brain…
Raw Score: 56 out of 75
Letter Grade: D

A rewrite completed in time for the January update did nothing to change the low grade Maine received in the March 1998 report. The Maine standards just don’t have much ‘there’ there. The document itself is quite long, but only 17 pages deal with the actual content of the science curriculum. The standards are plagued with vagueness. In some areas, such as physics, they’re too sketchy to be of any use. “Energy is never properly defined, though it appears as a main theme,” Lerner writes. The changes seen in the rewrite are negligible, “so that at bottom the current document is not very different from that reviewed in 1998,” Lerner wrote.
“There is a very fine standards document hidden in here, crying to get out. What is needed is much more attention to details,” he writes.

Most Improved
Raw Score: 72 out of 75 (up from 65 in 1998)
Letter Grade: A (up from C in 1998)

Massachusetts scored a ‘C’ in the 1998 report, but raised it to a solid ‘A’ in time for January 2000′s update. The standards themselves are unchanged, but a supplementary guide, released in January 1998, “provides substantial clarification not present in the original document…Since the guide reiterates the individual standards, it may be regarded as a replacement for the earlier document, minus the fluff.” The original included some “elegant material” but was “garbled” in many places. Lerner still recommended a rewrite to integrate the documents.

Evolution is not taboo in Massachusetts, but there was at least one use of the term “natural selection” which Lerner said was ‘simply wrong.’ He also commented that Massachusetts “doesn’t use evolution as widely as it ought to, and it doesn’t introduce it as early as it should.”

Run, Toto, Run!
Raw Score: 43 out of 75
Letter Grade: F

Best to just junk this and start over. “A thorough rewrite, with a view to completeness and especially to grounding the individual standards in a solid theoretical framework, is much to be desired,” Lerner writes.

Two addenda were made available to Lerner since his 1998 review, but these were little help. A major problem is the curriculum only spans grades K-10, dividing these into two levels, K-6 and 7-10, and the work of grades 10-12 are treated almost as a side issue. It seems the tail is wagging the dog in New Hampshire. The state requires assessment tests in grades 6 and 10. These standards appear to be written towards the tests. Worse, the standards tend to push off much significant biology material into grades 11 and 12—the two which are not well defined. However, this does not appear to be a deliberate attempt to avoid teaching human evolution—it’s more reflective of the “spottiness and disorganization” Lerner found throughout the document.

More from Lerner: “Little attempt is made to elaborate on the fundamental principles of the sciences. Students are expected to understand the concepts of energy and entropy, but no attempt is made to define or develop them. Newton’s laws are dealt with only by implication.” Ouch!

For Skeptics, There’s No Place Like It
Raw Score: 71 out of 75
Letter Grade: A

Gene Emory swore to me he had nothing to do with it, but I’m skeptical. Rhode Island was one of only two states in America singled out by Lerner for its active approach to dealing with pseudoscience. Rhode Island’s standards provide opportunities for students to learn what pseudoscience is, what it looks like, and why it isn’t science.

Lerner cites the following lesson suggestion from the Rhode Island Science Framework: “Compare the astrological signs of the students with the actual constellations in the sky at the time of their birth. Have students keep a journal of daily horoscopes, which they compare, ex post facto…with actual events. Have them draw a conclusion after a month of such data collection.”

The science standards document includes many more ‘interesting and unique elaborations’ Lerner admired, but he did find some errors. Since the RISF is more than 300 pages long, it’s not surprising that a few mistakes slipped through.

Overall, Rhode Island has some of the best science standards in the country. “Students are expected to acquire a substantial degree of knowledge of such important matters as DNA sequences and the amino acids for which they code, cell differentiation, and the selectivity of cell membranes. The science is real and specific, and includes considerable laboratory experience,” Lerner writes.

Most Evolved
Raw Score: 69 out of 75
Letter Grade: B +

Vermont hasn’t let creationists monkey around with its science curriculum. “The integration of evolution into the life sciences ranks among the best of any state standards,” Lerner writes. “Beginning at the preK-4 level, the dynamic nature of life forms the center of biological investigations. The intimate linkage among the astronomical, geological, and biological sciences is made very clear, as is the basis of these sciences on physical and chemical laws,” he writes.

The Vermont document is called the Science, Mathematics, and Technology Standards, and the work does a good job of integrating the three subjects. The only real weakness with the document is its brevity. Lerner felt it could have benefited from further elaboration and detail in places.

There’s No Place Like Home
There’s No Place Like Home
There’s No Place Like Home…

So New England is in pretty good shape—right now, anyway. Next time, we’ll learn how to defend the good stuff and improve the rest. We will go behind the front lines of the evolution revolution with leaders of Kansas Citizens For Science, the nonprofit formed in the wake of the disastrous state board of education vote. Plus, an investigation of the six state boards of education: how they operate, who their current members are, what science credentials the members have, and how they have voted on key issues in state science education.