Study: Wisconsin Has the Worst Science Education Standards in the Country

By Christian D’Andrea
MacIver Institute Education Policy Analyst

The grades are out – Wisconsin is the worst in the United States when it comes to science curricula in the classroom. In the words of a recent study, our state’s science standards are “simply worthless.”

A 2012 report from the Thomas B. Fordham Institute gauged the strength of science programs across the nation. With several different approaches to teaching science in the classroom, every state presented a different challenge to students and analysts. This study, authored by a cabal of notable researchers, broke down the difference in science standards throughout the country. Without a “Common Core” of data standards for scientific studies, each state has a significant amount of freedom with which to determine what their students learn about science in the classroom.

However, many of these state-mandated standards leave students behind when it comes to comprehensive knowledge about the subject. Wisconsin’s is one of them.

The Badger State earned a failing grade when it came to the science standards that students are supposed to be held to, posting a 0/10 score and a “F” grade. This was the lowest recorded score in the entire study.

Wisconsin earned marks so low that they were practically nonexistent. The Fordham Institute study put blame on the state for tying their standards to the outdated National Science Education Standards (NSES) and failing to elaborate or personalize these guidelines to better fit its students.

The authors’ distaste for Wisconsin’s approach is apparent in the study:

Any educator who might hope to create a curriculum from the Wisconsin science material would be stranded in a dismal, content-free desert. True standards are provided for just three grades, and the content provided for those grades is almost nonexistent.

Scientific Inquiry and Methodology

Like most of the content standards, the standards for inquiry and methodology are devoid of any real substance. For example, a fourth-grade standard tells students, “When studying a science-related problem, decide what changes over time are occurring or have occurred.” What this is meant to signify—or what skills are intended for mastery—is impossible to know.

All Content Areas

It’s virtually impossible to evaluate the content of the Wisconsin science standards because almost none is presented. Of the eight strands, only three—physical science, earth and space science, and life and environmental science— address bona fide scientific content. (The other five are devoted to process and inquiry). Moreover, all the content that students are expected to learn at each grade is presented in less than a page. Thus, all the science content Wisconsin students are expected to learn is presented in fewer than ten pages.

These shortcomings were responsible for Wisconsin’s ranking of 51st out of 51 states and Washington D.C.. The Badger State’s closest competitors at the bottom were Montana and North Dakota.

Science has been a subject that has fallen to the wayside in America. In 2009, only one-third of American students scored “proficient” or better when it came to scientific studies in the fourth grade. By eighth grade, this score sunk to 30 percent, and in 12th grade it was just 21 percent. All figures come courtesy of the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), also known as “The Nation’s Report Card.”

However, despite the lax science standards, Wisconsin performed above the national average when it came to NAEP testing in fourth grade, where 42 percent of students taking the test rated out at “proficient” or above. In eighth grade, the state’s results were the same as the national average. State data in 12th grade was not available.

Across the country, only five states and districts – California, Virginia, South Carolina, Indiana, and Washington D.C. – received “A” grades. Wisconsin was one of 10 states to earn a “F,” alongside Alaska, Wyoming, the Dakotas, and others. Michigan and Minnesota each earned a “C,” while Iowa and Illinois recorded “D”s. For the Badger State, this grade maintained the status quo of years past – Wisconsin also graded out at “F” in the 2005 version of this same report.

The Fordham report deals a damning blow to the state’s science standards. While many have often focused on the state’s reading and mathematics results, it appears that science has taken a back seat when it comes to creating a defined and comprehensive curriculum for Wisconsin’s students.

This lack of foundation may have a significant effect on the state’s lagging test scores in the subject. It could be leaving pupils behind the curve as they grow. Though some students will be able to go above and beyond the vague standards that Wisconsin puts out when it comes to science, others will be caught up in a less stringent system that provides little direction in this area of study.