Kansas is replacing some of the nation's strongest science standards for public schools with weaker, multistate guidelines, according to an educational think tank that regularly reviews states' academic standards.
The Thomas B. Fordham Institute's report on the new standards drafted by 26 states and the National Research Council was released Thursday, two days after the Kansas State Board of Education voted to adopt them. Kansas helped develop the standards, and educators and officials have praised them as a major improvement, partly because they emphasize hands-on projects and integrating math, technology and engineering in lessons.
But the nonprofit, Washington-based Fordham Institute gave the multistate standards a "C'' grade. The institute last year gave Kansas' old standards a "B," described them as "clearly superior" and assigned a higher grade to the standards in only seven states and the District of Columbia.
The institute acknowledges that the new, multistate guidelines, known as the Next Generation Science Standards, are superior to the standards in many states but said in its report that they scrimp on detail about what key concepts students are supposed to learn, citing chemistry and physics as the most glaring examples.
"We think that the ones you are ushering out the door are superior," Chester Finn, the institute's president, said in a conference call ahead of the report's release. "I hope you give them a very nice going-away party."
The Kansas board's past work on science standards has been overshadowed by debates over how to teach evolution. In 2005, after the board, led by conservative Republicans, adopted science standards treating evolution as a flawed theory, the Fordham Institute gave the Kansas guidelines an "F'' and declared them the worst in the nation. Two years later, with conservatives out of power, the board adopted evolution-friendly guidelines.
Kansas law requires the State Board of Education to update academic standards at least once every seven years. The standards are used to develop statewide tests given to students annually to judge how well schools are teaching, which in turn influences classroom content.
But Finn said the new, multistate science standards have "serious shortcomings."
"Our suggestion is that states that are unhappy with their science standards might have other alternatives," he told reporters. "They might borrow from the standards of a state that's done a really good job of this."
Supporters acknowledge the new standards have a narrower focus in terms of the topics they cover. But, backers contend, the guidelines will encourage a deeper knowledge of key concepts, such as evolution and climate change, and help schools do a better job of training students to think like scientists.
"A lot of standards have tended to be a mile wide and an inch deep," said Joshua Rosenau, programs and policy director for the National Center on Science Education, based in Oakland, Calif. "It's just a lot of information you shovel at kids so they can remember it on a test."
Page 2 of 2 - Kansas school board members supporting the new standards said they will strengthen science education. Board Chairwoman Jana Shaver, an Independence Republican, said in a statement Wednesday that it is preparing students not only for college courses but "for science literacy in everyday life."
Several teachers told the board that emphasizing hands-on experiments will excite their students.
"What I'm struck most by is the focus on skills instead of rote memorization," said Scott Sharp, a biology teacher at DeSoto High School.
Kathleen Porter-Magee, the Fordham Institute's senior director for high-quality standards, said while teaching students how to conduct experiments and think like scientists is important, so is mastering facts.
"I fear that we have grown to equate learning content with rote memorization," she said. "Knowing the material remains as critical today as it ever has been."