Is California Really Serious about Science?

February 1, 2012

When it comes to science, California may be the canary in the coal mine. The governor’s 2012/13 budget would relax the state’s already lax high school graduation requirements in science. This troubling move may foreshadow a similar rollback across the country.

Those who support the change in California say it will give schools and districts more flexibility in how they use their resources. Critics counter that cash-strapped districts will use this flexibility to divert time and money from science.

California can ill afford to drop its guard on science. As it is, high schoolers in the state need only two years in science to graduate, less than the three or four many states require.

When California students enter high school, they're already behind in science. Their fourth and eighth grade scores are among the nation's lowest (PDF). Should this really surprise us? After all, science is on the back burner in the state's elementary and middle schools. Large majorities of teachers in grades one through six say they spend fewer than two hours a week on science. That's less than the national average of 2.3 hours, which is hardly much to aspire to. The state's educators know that there is a problem. In a survey last year, less than half of its elementary school principals said their schools offer strong instruction in science.

To make matters worse, Californian students may well have little idea of how far behind they really are when they enter high school: The state sets the bar for passing its eighth grade science test quite low.

Amidst all this bad news, California can point to one big achievement. Just yesterday, it was the only state in the union to get an "A" in a national review of states' science content standards, which spell out what students should be learning at every grade level. Too bad that California schools are spending less and less time actually teaching to those standards.

It may seem all too easy to pick on California, whose cash-starved schools often feel they must rob Peter to pay Paul. Yet if we're not careful, California could be a sign of things to come in states around the country. For example, the U.S. House of Representatives is proposing to drop the requirement that states test students in science. We all know what's going to happen if that proposal passes: You can kiss science goodbye.

Science has long been the forgotten stepchild of school reform. The new move to create common standards in science offers at least a glimmer of hope to long-suffering science advocates, but the news out of California is a stark reminder that we're not out of the woods yet.

Tags: STEM & the states, science