A clearer picture of earth science education trends
and efforts for U.S. middle and high schools is now available thanks
to a survey funded in part by AAPG — as are the challenges
that educators face.
The survey, an effort of the American Geological Institute, was
first offered in 2001 as part of AGI’s "Earthcom"
and "Investigating Earth Systems" curriculum projects
for high schools and middle schools, respectively.
Updated survey results were presented in April at the AAPG Annual
Convention in Dallas. "Earth Science in Our Nation’s Schools,"
by AGI education director Michael Smith and co-worker Laura L. Middaugh,
was part of the AAPG forum on "Teaching Earth Sciences K-12
and Public Outreach."
"We received funding for these curriculum programs from AAPG
and the AGI Foundation, and we were often asked where is the greatest
potential for the programs’ use," Smith told the EXPLORER.
"Also we are frequently asked by people outside AGI about the state
of earth science education in particular states. In our attempts
to answer these questions we realized there was a need for a comprehensive
study of earth science education."
AGI’s 2004 study gleaned information from reports published
by the Chief Council for State School Officers organization and
the National High School Transcript Study conducted by the Center
for Educational Statistics, and surveyed state science supervisors
and chiefs of state geological surveys, according to Smith.
The survey of state science supervisors included such questions
- Is earth science part of the recommended courses for high school
science in your state?
- Is earth science part of another course recommended for high
- If earth science is taken, does it count toward high school
"Based on the responses to this relatively extensive survey
and the information pulled from relevant reports, we have compiled
a status report on the level of earth science education in each
state and for the first time this year the District of Columbia,"
"The general topics we cover in each state report are high
school and middle school course enrollment trends, earth science
and its relation to graduation requirements and earth science as
part of state assessment efforts," he said.
Some Missing Elements
Smith said AGI tries to be as thorough as possible, but there are
always elements missing in any survey.
"For example, the Chief Council for State School Officers
only received data on enrollment trends from 30 states, and we found
that very few states track earth science enrollment at the high
school or middle school levels," he said.
"Also, different states have different levels of sophistication
in their data," he continued. "California has very rich
information that is publicly available on a Web site, but other
states have no idea about enrollment trends.
"With this most recent study we have started to realize there
is a limit to how much we can accomplish by surveying the top science
representatives of states. In the future we may need to go straight
to teachers," he said.
The American Institute of Physics, for instance, has a statistical
group that does a study every four years on physics education and
the survey is mailed directly to physics teachers.
"They send the questionnaire to 10,000 plus teachers and have
a very high response rate," Smith said. "Our difficulty
in following that blueprint is that the National Earth Science Teachers
Association has approximately 800 members versus the 10,000 to 12,000
members of the American Association of Physics Teachers. We would
have to go to other sources of information to find out who is teaching
earth science, like the 80,000 member National Science Teachers
Association, but that is a bigger effort than we currently are taking."
What Are the Standards?
When AGI began its research it quickly became apparent there is
reason for concern over the state of earth science education in
the United States. According to the most recent National High School
Transcript Study, which samples 25,000 high school transcripts from
across the country and catalogs all the courses on those transcripts,
enrollment in earth science declined from 1988 to 1998.
Earth scientists were encouraged in 1996 when the National Research
Council’s National Science Education Standards were published
and earth science was included as a category of content for elementary,
middle school and high school students.
"But we were interested to know if those recommendations were
having an impact on earth science enrollment," Smith said.
"Are more states offering earth science as a result of the
latest national science standards?
"We included the state science standards for each state in
the survey," he said. "For example, in Texas we looked
at the Texas essential knowledge and skills. We found that, with
the exception of Iowa, every state and the District of Columbia
have science standards, and that every one of those states with
standards includes earth science at the high school level."
They also learned that science standards in 48 of the 50 states
and the District of Columbia correspond with the national standards.
"So the standard is there," Smith said, "but questions
remain whether earth science is being taught or assessed."
The AGI study indicates that 43 states require two or more science
credits for high school graduation, which according to Smith is
troublesome when there are four core subject areas — biology,
chemistry, physics and earth science.
"How do you get earth science into the curriculum when 20
states require only two science credits and students can choose
from four subjects?" he asked.
Twenty-two states require three science credits, and only one state,
Alabama, requires four science credits.
"In the survey we asked if an earth science course is included
in the state’s recommended high school science curriculum,
and 26 states said yes, seven said no and 16 said the determination
was made at the school district level," he said. "We also
asked if earth science is part of another science course and again
27 states said yes, eight said no and 13 said it was determined
by each district."
One interesting finding from the study was in the arena of high
school graduation requirements.
"We wanted to know if an earth science course counts toward
high school science graduation requirements," Smith said. "Thirty-three
states answered yes, 14 said it was decided at the district level
and only one state said no."
Which state does not accept earth science as a science requirement
for graduation? Texas.
"AGI has been involved in trying to get earth science back
in the high school curriculum in Texas as a core course that counts
as a high school graduation credit," Smith said. "The
state school board has voted to accept a recommendation from an
earth science task force and the second reading of that recommendation
will be in the first half of this year."
There is, however, a contingent in Texas that opposes this move,
arguing earth science is not a core science and there are not enough
qualified teachers for the subject matter, he added.
As part of this year’s study, AGI queried state science supervisors
about environmental science as well. Twenty-eight states and the
District of Columbia said that environmental science counted toward
graduation requirements and only four said no.
"We were interested in learning about environmental science,
which is a new part of the status report this year, because we saw
from the National High School Transcript Study that environmental
science education has expanded in the last 10 years while earth
sciences have declined," Smith said.
"Our concern is that while environmental science includes
some earth science concepts, it is not a significant part of the
course and approaches earth science from a very narrow perspective,"
he continued. "These courses typically only look at such issues
as the environmental impact of natural resource extraction rather
than focusing on where mineral resources comes from and how they
are formed. They certainly don’t include any space or atmospheric
science or study of the oceans — all of which are included
in a dedicated earth science course."
The AGI study also probed the level of earth science instruction
at the middle school level. Smith said 100 percent of the 47 states
and the District of Columbia that responded indicated earth science
is part of the middle school curriculum.
Of that total, seven states said earth science was a year-long
course, eight states said it was part of an integrated science class
and 27 said it was taught under both scenarios, depending on the
The survey responses also indicated that, except for Iowa, earth
science is included in all the state standards for middle schools.
However, there was no real consensus when the state science supervisors
were asked at what middle school grade level earth science is taught:
31 states said earth science is part of the curriculum from the
sixth through eighth grades.
"This is significant, because in some states middle school
is the last time students take earth science, and often that is
in the sixth grade," Smith said. "We feel that is a serious
problem, because there are certain things a child can understand
about how the earth works when they are 12 or 13 years old, and
then there is a whole deeper level of sophistication of understanding
that can be developed with high school students. In our view it
is not consistent with national priorities for science education
that earth science be limited to the middle school level."
Another concern with earth science education in middle schools
is the textbooks.
"There is a big difference between a sixth grader and an eighth
grader in terms of what they can understand — what mathematical
problems they can solve, for instance — but the textbooks are
written as though they are generic middle school books," Smith
said. "We don’t think these books can work as well for
the younger sixth graders as they do for eighth graders."
AGI also queried state science supervisors about state assessments
for science and earth sciences specifically. Thirty-five states
reported that there is a state-wide student assessment program in
science, and 24 of the 35 indicated that there is an earth science
component on the test, although it covered kindergarten through
twelfth grade, not necessarily high school.
"We would like to dig a little deeper into that finding to
determine at what level students are being assessed with regard
to earth science," Smith said.
Questions regarding high school exit exams were less promising.
Twenty-four states said high school exit exams are conducted, but
only 18 of that total require passing the test as a requirement
An even smaller number, 11 of the 24, include science on the exit
exams, and only four include earth science.
"We were disappointed that we couldn’t gather more data
about enrollment trends, but it appears that information being collected
about course enrollment is on the decline," Smith said. "The
focus today is on state testing due to the No Child Left Behind
law. As a result, we could get detailed results on state tests,
but tracking how many students take specific courses is much more
"Texas is a good example," he continued. "Until
a couple of years ago the state eliminated its middle school science
test and eliminated earth science as a course that counted for high
school graduation. That meant the last time students were tested
on earth science was in fifth grade. No Child Left Behind changed
all that, mandating a middle school science test. But, states do
have flexibility concerning the content of those tests."
Smith said the AGI education status report is a resource for both
the earth science community and the states’ education establishment
to better understand the level of science education in this country.
"This report gives people within the states the opportunity
to quickly see what is happening in their state in terms of earth
science teaching and learning," he said. "Our hope is
that if they don’t like what they see they will become actively
involved in affecting change."