Four years ago Barack Obama promised to improve states' standardized testing of scientific aptitude in public schools.
In his campaign literature, he pointed to a few states that were already measuring students' ability "to design and conduct investigations, analyze and present data, (and) write up and defend results." He said he would work with governors and educators to make sure more states tested those skills.
We didn't find any evidence that the Education Department is directly involved in creating new state standards and assessments for science. Although standards and assessments are the responsibility of states, the federal government has played a role recently in supporting states with changing curriculum and measuring aptitude in other subjects, such as reading and math. In rating a related promise, we found that the Obama administration had pushed college readiness assessments in states. In that case, the federal government leveraged competitive grant funding and waivers under the No Child Left Behind law to compel changes at the state level. So far, state science testing hasn't received the same kind of federal attention.
The Education Department did use grant funding to encourage the hiring of science teachers and the expansion of science, technology, engineering and math curriculum. Obama has also used his bully pulpit as president to speak about the importance of 21st century critical thinking skills. In a related promise, we noted that Obama convened meetings and encouraged contests involving students, science and engineering societies, nonprofits and businesses.
Finally, the science section of the country's national standardized K-12 education test received an overhaul in 2009. The revised test not only examines students' knowledge of subjects such as biology and physics, but also evaluates critical thinking skills, such as inquiry, interpretation and argumentation. It's worth noting, however, that a better national test is not a substitute for Obama's goal of improved state science assessments -- only a representative sample of students take the national test every four years and the results do not provide information about the performance of individuals or specific schools.
State testing appears to be on horizon, too, but not as a result of federal policy. A partnership of 26 states have set out to do exactly what candidate Obama described in his 2008 campaign promise. Using a report on science education from the National Research Council -- a branch of the National Academy of Sciences -- the states are trying to create a common set of standards that states could use for future science testing. Those standards don't exist yet, but the National Research Council report says that public school science curriculum should go beyond memorization of facts and concepts -- students should also learn skills such as analyzing and interpreting data and making evidence-based arguments. If the effort is successful, standards would be available for states to adopt by 2013, with new testing to follow in years to come.
Improved science assessments as Obama once envisioned them might materialize in his second term. However, we couldn't find any evidence that the federal government played a role in improving state standardized testing in science. We rate this a Promise Broken.