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.

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.