Science Notes

Colorado’s New K-12 Standards Emphasize Understanding Human Causes of Global Environmental Change

By Andrew Primo

January 2021

Middle schoolers from Loveland Classical Schools prepare for a regional Science Bowl competition. (Craig Young / Loveland Reporter-Herald)

For a foundational subject in K-12 education, science has attracted more than its fair share of controversy. From the Scopes Monkey Trial in the 1920s to “academic freedom bills” that aimed to undermine the teaching of evolution and climate change in the 2010s, science classrooms have become unfortunate but familiar battlegrounds for political challenges to basic facts – most recently regarding humans’ role in drastically affecting the planet’s climate and biosphere.

Colorado, however, is taking some steps to change this; the state is in the middle of rolling out new K-12 science standards that mandate the teaching of human-driven environmental change from fifth grade through high school. Once the new framework is fully adopted, every public-school student in the state will be tested on the ways that human activities like fossil-fuel consumption, resource extraction, and large-scale agriculture have contributed to climate change and biodiversity loss. 

The fragmented nature of the United States education system – in which each state sets its own standards and designs its own benchmark tests – has traditionally made the adoption of national academic standards difficult. Although various federal programs have tried to incentivize academic achievement, what is taught and how performance is measured is ultimately left up to the states. The fact that science education tends to attract high-profile political battles over subjects like evolution and climate change has made agreement on science standards particularly elusive.

This pattern began to change in 2013 with the release of the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS). Designed to emphasize curiosity and inquiry over principles and formulas, NGSS was the product of a collaboration between national science education organizations, such as the American Association for the Advancement of Science and the National Science Teaching Association, and education departments from 26 states. This cooperative approach eased some of the traditional tension around national science standards; by 2021, 19 states and Washington, D.C., had adopted NGSS wholesale, and 24 more (including Colorado) had fashioned their own standards to match the framework.

Before adopting its new NGSS-inspired model, the last time the Colorado Department of Education (CDE) had revamped its science standards was in 2009, during which it stayed mostly mum on issues related to human-caused environmental change. A single high school earth science standard required that students be able to “analyze the evidence and assumptions regarding climate change” and “determine if the evidence presented is appropriate and sufficient to support the claims.” Carbon emissions and the greenhouse effect were nowhere to be found. The “popular media” controversy, however, is highlighted, as the students were asked to choose which side provided the best argument.

Following NGSS’s lead, however, Colorado’s new 2020 standards introduce the human causes of global warming and other major environmental change as early as fifth grade.

“Human activities in agriculture, industry, and everyday life have had major effects on the land, vegetation, streams, ocean, air and even outer space,” reads the standard. “But individuals and communities are doing things to help protect Earth’s resources and environments.”

This assertion is buttressed over the next seven years by 10 additional standards focusing on different aspects of human-driven environmental change, from biodiversity loss to climate modeling to renewable energy. All told, nearly 20% of the new middle and high school earth and life science standards directly address the causes and effects of anthropogenic environmental change.

According to the state’s new deadline, every school district in Colorado will fully adopt the new standards by the 2021-22 school year. Once the transition is complete, CDE will introduce a new Colorado Measure of Academic Success (CMAS) for science: the statewide exam that gauges students’ content knowledge in fifth, eighth, and 11th grades.

Standards are not the same as teaching, however. While CDE requires that all public and charter schools in the state meet the standards, it has very little say over how they do it. Curriculum development in Colorado is a matter of local control, left up to individual school districts, and therefore subject to funding struggles and local politics. So while the new standards certainly represent a significant baseline shift in K-12 science education in Colorado, implementation across the state could be very uneven, especially as state and local budgets have been thrown into chaos by the COVID-19 pandemic.


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