STEM Education Research

Report: States Face Continued Big Lift with Science Standards

New science standards have been adopted in some form by forty-three states (the most recent being Maine), based on some combination of the Next Generation Science Standards and the National Research Council's Framework for K-12 Science Education. But that's hardly the final word for instilling more STEM into the classroom. A new report from Achieve, a survey among state education agencies on science policy, has found that there needs to be more work done by states to emphasize required instructional time for science in early grades, establish a course sequence for science topics in middle school and match graduation requirements with state-defined science learning for high school.

Achieve is a nonprofit focused on making sure every student graduates from high school ready for success in college or career.

According to the survey, just 19 states had specific policies regarding how much instructional time students in grades K-5 should receive for science. And even those with policies were often "vague," leaving out a specific time commitment. In the absence of a requirement, the report stated, "students receive widely disparate science learning experiences, many of which do not prepare them for middle or high school science."

Most states also reported that they don't specify a "curricular organization" for science education in middle school, leaving those decisions to districts and schools. This lack of sequencing leaves students who move from one district to another at a distinct disadvantage, the report noted. "They can miss sizable sections of learning when districts are teaching science in different sequences."

The number of credits and the specific courses required for high school graduation varied "widely" among states. And most of the requirements fell short of having students meet the full high school science standards. The survey found that while 34 states required students to finish at least three credits of science before graduating, 10 states stipulated just two credits, while another three states left it up to the individual district to decide.

Twenty-nine states also reported that they allowed non-science courses, such as computer science, to be substituted for science requirements. Achieve doesn't necessarily approve. As the report pointed out, while the addition of CS in high school "is valuable due to the booming growth in the industry," the states need to "carefully weigh the tradeoffs" before they allow CS to take the place of math or science courses, "particularly as it may have implications for whether a student is eligible for postsecondary admission."

The report also advised that states help districts create "appropriate policies" or guidance on high school course pathways, so that families and students understand the implications of choosing different courses.

The job of assessing student learning for the new science standards was a work in progress, the survey found. The report found that 39 states would be transitioning to new science assessments in grades 3-8; and 37 states were either developing or administering new assessments in high school. Achieve recommended that all states be cautious about the use of those assessments to make decisions on student, teacher or school progress until they're assured that the tests are "high-quality and aligned to the state's standards" and that the exams do a competent job of gauging student performance "consistent with the expectations of the standards."

Finally, the report encouraged states to set quantitative goals for students in science in their state plans, alongside English language arts and math. Without those, Achieve explained, "it is hard to improve science performance."

The full nine-page survey report is openly available on the Achieve website.

About the Author

Dian Schaffhauser is a former senior contributing editor for 1105 Media's education publications THE Journal, Campus Technology and Spaces4Learning.