Climate Change in State Science Standards: A 2020 Snapshot

GLENN BRANCH (branch@ncse.ngo) is the Deputy Director at the National Center for Science Education, Oakland, CA, and LIN ANDREWS (andrews@ncse.ngo) is the Director of Teacher Support at the National Center for Science Education, Oakland, CA.

In its position statement on climate change education, the National Association of Geoscience Teachers describes teaching climate change science as "a fundamental and integral part of earth science education," adding that "a current and comprehensive level of understanding of the science and teaching of climate change is essential to effective education" (2009). Similar position statements about the importance of climate change education have subsequently been adopted by the National Science Teaching Association (2018) and the National Association of Biology Teachers (2020).

But to what extent do state science standards reflect the science education community's affirmation of the importance of climate change education? It's a crucial question, because state science standards play a central role in science education in the public schools of the United States. They dictate the content of textbooks; they provide the basis for statewide testing; they influence the coursework of pre-service and in-service teachers; and they supply the structure on which local school districts construct their science curricula and on which individual science teachers base their day-to-day lesson plans.

Moreover, especially with regard to a socially controversial topic such as climate change, state science standards can provide a shield for teachers facing complaints about curriculum and instruction. Such complaints are not uncommon: in a 2014–2015 national survey (Plutzer et al., 2016), about 6.2 percent of public middle and high school science teachers who taught about climate change reported experiencing pressure not to do so. Teachers are more likely to be able to deflect such complaints when they can explain that the state expects them to teach in accordance with the standards.

So, what state science standards say about climate change plays a significant role in determining what is presented about climate change in the public school classroom. Accordingly, "Making the Grade? How State Public School Standards Address Climate Change," a new report from the National Center for Science Education and the Texas Freedom Network Education Fund (2020), systematically examined the treatment of climate change in state science standards across the country. There is, unsurprisingly, both good news and bad news to be found in the report.

The Making of "Making the Grade?"

In order to review the treatment of climate change in the state science standards, NCSE and TFNEF recruited three Ph.D. scientists with varying specialties: Sarah Myhre, a climate scientist specializing in paleoecology; Steve Rissing, an evolutionary biologist, and Casey Williams, an educational psychologist specializing in climate change education. During the summer of 2020, the reviewers independently evaluated each of the thirty-one sets of state science standards then in use—twenty states and the District of Columbia use the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS Lead States, 2013).

For each state, reviewers were asked to examine the middle school science standards and high school standards for biology, chemistry, physics, earth (or earth and space) sciences, and environmental sciences. These are the standards for courses in which climate change is most likely to be discussed and which students are most likely to take. Elementary school standards and standards for more specialized areas of science—e.g., anatomy and physiology—were not considered. Ancillary documents such as curriculum frameworks were also not considered.

The reviewers assessed how well each set of standards addressed four key points that form a basic outline of the scientific consensus on climate change. These are, in a common octosyllabic formulation due to Edward W. Maibach: it's real; it's us; it's bad; there's hope (see, e.g., McCaffrey, 2014, p. xviii). (Occasionally a fifth point is added: scientists agree. In general, however, state science standards include only information on which scientists overwhelmingly agree, so explicitly noting the existence of a robust scientific consensus on climate change would be arguably superfluous.)

With respect to each of these four key points, the reviewers assessed how extensively and explicitly climate change was discussed, how coherently and clearly climate change was incorporated in the standards, and how well the standards prepared students for further study in higher education and for responsible participation in civic deliberation about climate change. Overall grades for the states were calculated on a curve from a weighted average of the three reviewers' ratings; details of the curve and the weighting are contained in the appendix to the report.

The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

The good news is that a majority of states (26) earned a B+ or better for how their standards address climate change overall. These twenty-six states (and the District of Columbia) include the twenty states (and the District of Columbia) that have adopted the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS Lead States 2013), which received a B+ grade, as well as Massachusetts, which also earned a B+ grade, and five states where the standards are even better: Alaska, Colorado, New York, North Dakota, and Wyoming. (See Table 1 for all the grades.)

Interestingly, the three states in the U.S. that are the most economically dependent on the fossil fuel industry—Alaska, North Dakota, and Wyoming (Handler et al., 2020)—were among the states to receive the highest grades for the treatment of climate change in their state science standards. Especially in light of the ignominious history of the fossil fuel industry's systematically promoting public misinformation about climate change (Oreskes and Conway, 2010), including in the public educational system (Worth, 2017; Zou, 2017), it is encouraging to see such progress.

The bad news is that of the remaining twenty-four states, twenty received a C+ or worse; ten received a D or worse, including some of the most populous states in the country, such as Florida, Pennsylvania, Ohio, and Texas; and six states—Alabama, Georgia, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, Virginia, and Texas—received a failing grade. Significantly, the six states where the standards are not based on the same framework on which the NGSS are based (National Research Council, 2012) tended to fare badly: North Carolina received a C- while the remainder received grades of D or F.

Climate change is virtually absent from the science standards in a few of these states. It is common for the phrases "climate change" and "global warming" to be avoided even when the topic is under discussion. And unwarranted doubt or ambiguity is frequently introduced: where the NGSS expect students to examine evidence that human activities and natural processes have caused a rise in global temperatures, for example, Alabama's standards only suggest that such factors "may have" caused a rise, while Missouri's standards describe what these factors caused not as a rise but as a change.

As for the ugly, there are passages in the science standards of five states that actually misrepresent anthropogenic climate change as a matter of scientific debate: Mississippi, South Carolina, South Dakota, Texas, and West Virginia. West Virginia's standards are particularly egregious, expecting high school environmental science students to "debate climate change as it relates to natural forces, greenhouse gases, human changes in atmospheric concentrations of greenhouse gases, and [in a science class!] relevant laws and treaties" (West Virginia Board of Education, 2016, S.HS.ENV.17, p. 56).

Climate Change in the Next Generation Science Standards

In the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS Lead States, 2013), global climate change is listed as one of four sub-ideas in the core idea of Earth and Human Activity at both the middle school and the high school level. The most explicit discussions of climate change are

At the middle school level:

MS-ESS3-5. Ask questions to clarify evidence of the factors that have caused the rise in global temperatures over the past century. [Clarification Statement: Examples of factors include human activities (such as fossil fuel combustion, cement production, and agricultural activity) and natural processes (such as changes in incoming solar radiation or volcanic activity). Examples of evidence can include tables, graphs, and maps of global and regional temperatures, atmospheric levels of gases such as carbon dioxide and methane, and the rates of human activities. Emphasis is on the major role that human activities play in causing the rise in global temperatures.]

And, at the high school level:

HS-ESS3-5. Analyze geoscience data and the results from global climate models to make an evidence-based forecast of the current rate of global or regional climate change and associated future impacts to Earth's systems. [Clarification Statement: Examples of evidence, for both data and climate model outputs, are for climate changes (such as precipitation and temperature) and their associated impacts (such as on sea level, glacial ice volumes, or atmosphere and ocean composition).] [Assessment Boundary: Assessment is limited to one example of a climate change and its associated impacts.]

Because the state science standards of all but six states are based on the framework (National Research Council, 2012) on which the NGSS are based, versions of these passages—sometimes better; sometimes equivalent; sometimes worse—appear widely in state science standards.

Caveats and Considerations

Three states—Pennsylvania, South Carolina, and Texas—were in the process of revising their state science standards during the summer of 2020, and the report reflects the existing, not the proposed, standards, all of which received the grade of F. At the time of writing, the revised standards have not yet been finalized in any of these states, but current indications are that the treatment of climate change will improve dramatically in South Carolina's new standards, moderately in Pennsylvania's new standards, and slightly in Texas's new standards.

In addition to state science standards, a number of states, including California, Ohio, and Virginia, offer curriculum frameworks, which are intended to help districts construct their curricula in such a way as to ensure that the educational goals of the standards are achieved. If such frameworks—which often contain further content on climate change—had been assessed as well, California, Ohio, and Virginia might have earned higher grades than their B+, D, and F, respectively. But it is not clear to what extent districts follow the advice provided by these frameworks.

Only state science standards were examined in the report, so no consideration was given to the treatment of climate change in standards for other topics. A recent study reports that seventeen states explicitly include climate change in their state social studies standards (Aspen Institute, 2020). Among them is New Jersey, which in fact recently incorporated climate change throughout its standards, with the result that practically every teacher in the state's public schools is encouraged to discuss climate change in appropriate educational contexts with their students (Branch, 2020).

Yet the treatment of climate change is generally most complete and most explicit in the state science standards for high school classes in earth sciences and environmental sciences. Such classes are usually not required for graduation from high school: only two states require students to take a year-long class in earth or environmental science to graduate, and only eight states require the study of earth and space sciences concepts at the high school level (Center for Geoscience and Society, 2018, p. 4). As a consequence, such classes are often not even offered, rendering these standards inert.

State science standards that address climate change elsewhere as well are thus particularly commendable. For example, the high school life science standards of the NGSS acknowledge that "anthropogenic changes ... including ... climate change ... can disrupt an ecosystem and threaten the survival of some species" (NGSS Lead States, 2013, Disciplinary Core Idea LS2.C, cited under performance indicator HS-LS2-7). High school biology teachers in states that have adopted the NGSS are thus expected to discuss anthropogenic climate change.

Conclusion

It is important to appreciate that the connection between the science standards and the science classroom is loose. Even in states with excellent treatments of climate change in the state science standards, personal doubts, lack of scientific and pedagogical preparation, and community hostility are likely to play a role in deterring teachers from teaching accordingly (Plutzer et al., 2016). By the same token, even in states with deplorable treatments of climate change in their state science standards, it is typically possible for a teacher to discuss it within the structure of the standards.

Nevertheless, there is reason to believe that improvements in the treatment of climate change in state science standards will eventually produce improvements in the presentation of climate change in science classrooms. A recent study showed a marked improvement in the treatment of a different socially controversial topic in science—evolution—in public high school biology classes between 2007 and 2019. The improvement was evidently in part owing to the widespread adoption of the NGSS, which treats evolution as a disciplinary core idea of the life sciences (Plutzer, Branch, and Reid, 2020).

For improvements at the level of state science standards to produce improvements at the level of science classrooms, however, it will be necessary to ensure that science teachers are equipped with the scientific knowledge and pedagogical knowhow to teach climate change effectively. Less than half of the middle and high school science teachers in the 2014–2015 survey reported having taken a course in college that devoted even a single class session to climate change (Plutzer et al., 2016). In both pre-service and in-service coursework for teachers, climate change therefore ought to be a high priority.

According to a 2019 estimate, a large majority—78 percent—of Americans agree that schools should teach our children about the causes, consequences, and potential solutions to global warming (Marlon, Howe, Mildenberger, Leiserowitz, and Wang, 2020). State science standards are a primary, if not the only, determinant of whether public schools will succeed in doing so. There are clear signs of progress, thanks to the NGSS in particular. Yet there is a long way to go before every state's science standards are adequate to meeting the task of preparing today's students to cope with tomorrow's warmer world.

Acknowledgments

We are grateful to the staff of the Texas Freedom Network Education Fund, especially Dan Quinn, and the reviewers for the report, Sarah Myhre, Steve Rissing, and Casey Williams, for their participation in the "Making the Grade? How State Public School Standards Address Climate Change" project. We also thank our colleagues Paul Oh and Ann Reid for their comments on the manuscript and our former colleague Brad Hoge for discussion of the treatment of climate change in state science standards.

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