Different state standards lead to varying degrees of science preparation.

A series of reports found that K-12 students in many states spend less time learning science and don’t have access to rigorous science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) courses—and that many states have low benchmarks for eighth-grade science proficiency.

The reports come from Change the Equation (CTEq), a CEO-led effort to improve STEM education launched by the Obama administration as part of its “Educate to Innovate” initiative. They examine student performance, access to educational opportunities, and the amount of instructional support that teachers and schools receive in STEM-related courses.

Included are profiles of each state and recommendations for how it can improve K-12 STEM education. Some of those recommendations address the same issues.

For instance, recommendations for Texas include:

  • Texas should ensure that its new state tests in science set the threshold for student proficiency high. The bar on its previous 8th-grade science test was so low, for example, that schools were being held accountable for meeting a very weak standard.
  • Texas students should understand the requirements for college admission and whether a high school diploma prepares them for college-level work. One way to ensure that diplomas have meaning is to align state high school graduation and college entrance requirements. Texas also should expand access to rigorous courses in math and science.
  • Because Texas chose not to adopt Common Core State Standards, the state should provide public, third-party evidence that its new math standards and tests are aligned with expectations for college and careers and benchmarked to academic expectations in top-performing countries.

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The Elementary and Secondary Education Act mandates science testing once each in grades K-5, 6-8, and 9-12. States set their own proficiency standards.

CTEq partnered with the American Institutes for Research (AIR) to compare states’ passing scores on their 2009 eighth-grade science test by measuring those scores against the 2009 National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP). Currently, 37 states have data available for comparison.

CTEq and AIR mapped each state’s passing science score onto the 300-point NAEP scale. NAEP has three performance levels: Advanced indicates superior performance, Proficient represents solid academic performance and means that students have demonstrated competency over challenging subject matter, and Basic indicates partial mastery of prerequisite knowledge and skills that are necessary for proficiency.

Fifteen of the 37 states examined set their proficiency levels below the NAEP’s threshold for basic performance, and only four states set theirs near or above the NAEP’s cutoff for proficient performance.

But what, exactly, does “proficient” mean to states? It varies from state to state and has different interpretations.