The effort to ensure that every Florida K-12 student was scientifically literate reached its highest point on February 19, 2008 – the day the State Board of Education voted 4-3 to adopt new science standards that had been developed over the previous months by scientists and science educators. While the standards dealt with a wide range of topics in life, physical and Earth/space science, it was the clearly stated requirement to teach biological evolution that attracted the most attention and controversy. The evolution issue attracted attention from national advocacy groups and the media.
But it looked to those of us who worked on the standards-writing committee that the standards would improve the learning of chemistry, physics, geology, meteorology, and space science as well as biology. We were full of optimism and eager to be involved as Florida blazed a new trail in science literacy.
It’s been downhill ever since.
In 2010, the Legislature passed and Governor Crist signed Senate Bill 4, which set new high school graduation requirements and initiated the state’s end-of-course testing program. The only science subject at the high school level that merited a new end-of-course exam in Senate Bill 4 was biology. In response to complaints from the state’s scientific community, a promise to initiate high school end-of-course exams in chemistry, physics and Earth/space science in the future was included in the bill language. The high school graduation requirements set in Senate Bill 4 included three science courses (two with labs) including biology and either chemistry or physics. It was already a far cry from the intent that standards writers had in 2008, but the insertion of the promise of future additional end-of-course exams gave us some hope.
But end-of-course exams in chemistry, physics and Earth/space science never made it into the real world. Worse than that, before the first student was ever required to meet the high school graduation requirements set in Senate Bill 4 they were repealed in 2013. The only science subject now required for graduation in Florida is biology.
The erosion of the 2008 science standards was not limited to the high school level. Leon County – and perhaps other districts – decided to have its strongest 8th graders take the high school Biology 1 class (and it’s state-required end-of-course exam) and skip the customary middle school physical science class. With the statewide standardized science exam for middle school – the 8th grade Science FCAT – being divided up into four nearly equal pieces (life science, Earth/space science, physical science and nature of science) and there being no impact on the students for the grades they achieved on the exam, there was little reason to restore physical science for all students. In fact, the parents of the strong 8th grade students were thrilled that their children passed the high school biology end-of-course exam and considered that to be clear evidence of their middle schools’ excellence in science instruction.
Then came the tax credit scholarship issue during the legislative session that just ended. Schools accepting tax credit scholarships have been required to test their students in math and English language arts – two of the three FCAT subjects – for years using nationally norm-referenced exams such as the SAT-10. They had never been required to test their students in science, which is the third subject covered by the FCAT. This had particular significance since four-fifths of tax credit scholarship schools in Florida are religious schools, and some of those have doctrinal objections to the conventional teaching of evolution and cosmology.
But when tax credit scholarship advocates called for an expansion of the program prior to this year’s legislative session, the President of the Florida Senate, Don Gaetz, made a counter-offer: Take Florida’s standardized testing program (which includes science) and the expansion will be allowed. In the waning hours of the session, a deal was cut that allowed a modest expansion of the tax credit scholarship program in return for what appears to be only a cosmetic change in the testing required of tax credit scholarship schools – and does not require science testing. It was a disappointment, but not really a surprise.
While science didn’t occupy center stage in this year’s battle over tax credit scholarships, a fairly vigorous side skirmish took place. Politico ran an investigative story on how tax credit scholarship money around the nation was funding religious schools where creationism is taught. The story included the views of Doug Tuthill, the President of Step Up for Students, the organization that administers Florida’s tax credit scholarship program. Politico reported his comments this way:
But Doug Tuthill, who runs one of the largest private school choice programs in the nation, says states have no right to determine what kids should learn, beyond basic math, reading and writing. Other topics, from the age of Earth to the reasons for the Civil War, are just too controversial for a government mandate, he said, even when taxpayer money is at stake.
“Once a child has strong literacy skills, they can educate themselves,” said Tuthill, who runs Florida’s Step Up for Students program. “We don’t have to rely on schools, necessarily.”
In six short years, we have gone from adopting nation-leading standards in science – including evolution and the age of the Earth and universe – to this. Only about 60,000 students – only a few percent of Florida’s K-12 students – used tax credit scholarships in the 2013-2014 academic year. But Step Up for Students is presently the most dynamic educational organization in Florida and has the full backing of the incredibly influential Bush education organizations. The idea that states “have no right to determine what kids should learn” in science is chilling. In addition, the assertion that a child with strong literacy skills can teach herself or himself science reflects a deep ignorance about how children learn science and perhaps even about the nature of science.
The domino theory went out with the Vietnam War, but one has to wonder what’s next. The implementation of the Common Core has certainly reduced the attention devoted to the learning of science. The science standards Florida adopted in 2008 are in need of some upgrades, but there is no public evidence that the state is preparing for this.
It seems unlikely that Florida would explicitly delete science from the high school graduation requirements, or drop the Science FCAT exams at the 5th and 8th grade levels. In the case of the FCAT Science exams, they are required by the federal No Child Left Behind law. One wonders whether that is all that is saving them.
But what is more likely is that the implicit prioritization of science in the state’s schools will continue to slowly decline, and the importance placed on high quality science instruction will decline as well.