For instance, Minnesota sets its eighth grade science proficiency near NAEP’s proficiency cutoff, and 43 percent of the state’s eighth graders are proficient on the state science test.

But Michigan sets its proficiency levels below the NAEP’s cutoff for basic performance, and so while 78 percent of the state’s eighth graders meet the state’s proficiency level, that level is not as rigorous as Minnesota’s.

“Setting a low bar in science breeds complacency and takes our eye off the ball,” the report notes. “If we lull parents, teachers, schools, and communities into believing that their children are doing just fine in science … we deprive them of the information and the sense of urgency they need to improve the quality of teaching and learning.”

And the dangers aren’t imaginary, the report warns: The U.S. ranked behind 12 other nations on a test of 15-year-olds’ science performance, and the country ranks 27th in the number of college students receiving undergraduate degrees in science or engineering.

CTEq CEO Linda P. Rosen said: “States are undertaking a lot of really heroic work in STEM education. … We hope that leaders will capitalize on what they learn from the data to improve STEM learning in every state.  We’ve come a long way, but we still have ground to cover.”

For more news about science instruction, see:

Spongelab whets students’ interest in science

Kansas headed for another debate over evolution

Inquiry-based approach to science a hit with students

Climate-change skepticism seeps into science classrooms

States could support an effort to develop common tests aligned with new science standards, similar to efforts with the Common Core State Standards in math and English. The Next Generation Science Standards, which strive to describe science content students should learn at every grade level, are in the early stages and are gaining supporters.

States also should plan how they will set proficiency levels to ensure that students are able to meet the demands of a competitive workforce. One way to do this, the report suggests, is “to benchmark state definitions of proficiency against an international definition embodied in international tests of student performance in science.”

Schools and communities should work to help students meet these more rigorous achievement requirements, and clearly define what students should know and be able to do.