Earth Science Education in California (2-25-02)

Text modified from an alert sent on February 23rd to California department chairs and local geoscience society presidents as well as the leadership of AGI's Member Societies.

On February 1, 2002, the American Geological Institute sent out an alert on an upcoming decision by the California State School Board on the California Science Framework for K-12 Public Schools, which are implementation guidelines for the state’s science education content standards. The purpose of the alert and an accompanying letter from AGI Executive Director Marcus Milling and Stanford Dean of Earth Science Lynn Orr was to encourage the board to delay action and address concerns about negative consequences for earth science instruction. The American Geophysical Union, Geological Society of America, and Seismological Society of America also sent out alerts on this issue. Other member societies and California local and regional geoscience societies took action as well.

Despite many e-mails and faxes sent by California geoscientists requesting a delay, the school board voted in favor of the Framework at its February 6th meeting. In turn, consultants for the state school board responded to the concerns of the geoscience community by chiding our organizations for issuing an erroneous alert, arguing that no policy change had been made and that earth science had not been downgraded. They also claimed that the framework merely quoted entrance requirements for the University of California and California State University systems. That response was not only dismissive but also highly misleading. Our concerns have only been amplified with closer inspection. Geoscientists in California should keep up the pressure.

We sought the delay because language in the draft framework failed to live up to the promise of the standards, which treated earth science on a par with physics, chemistry, and biology in high school (grades 9-12). In contrast, the framework recommended high-school graduation requirements under which earth science could only count in very specific circumstances, either in the context of an integrated science course or if other science courses were pre-requisites, in which case (the alert reader will note) the requirements would already have been met.

At the end of this message, you will find direct quotes from the California Education Code, the Content Standards for California Public Schools, and finally the Draft California Science Framework for K-12 Public Schools. The statutory code is non-specific about which physical science courses must be taken for graduation. The California standards, adopted several years ago, give earth science a prominent place in the curriculum. Only the framework leaves earth science as the odd man out.

As claimed by the consultants, the board may well have based its recommendation for minimum graduation requirements on UC/CSU entrance requirements. Regardless of the advisability of synchronizing these two sets of requirements, the framework should not sacrifice implementation of the earth science content standards in the process. Minimum graduation requirements are just that: minimum. And the students who will not be going to college are the very ones whom it is most important to reach in high school. These California citizens and future voters will live and work in one of the most geologically active places on Earth and will face decisions on where to buy a home and how to manage water and energy resources. They should learn earth science in high school. Clearly, the earth science community faces another challenge to change the UC/CSU entrance requirements. But that is and should be a separate issue for the university faculty to address.

The school board’s consultants assert that the framework does not establish any new policy, despite the fact that the document bills itself as the “blueprint for reform of science curriculum, instruction, professional preparation and development, and instructional materials in this state.” Even if it does not set policy, the framework certainly is intended to guide policy, and that is just as important. The standards were a step forward for the earth sciences in California. The framework for implementing those standards should be yet another step forward. Instead, the framework takes one, or even two, steps back. This situation takes on new urgency because of the upcoming plans for exit testing. If earth science is not perceived to be a key component, then it will not be in the tests. Funds will be directed toward the tested subjects and away from all other areas. Whatever window was opened by the standards will be slammed shut.

In Texas this past year, the state school board initially tried the same approach -- dismissing concerns raised by Texas geoscientists about the acceptability of earth science courses for meeting graduation requirements. Closer inspection brought on by continued pressure from those geoscientists, however, revealed that earth science indeed had been fundamentally downgraded, and since then hearings have been held by the board, and new requirements are being considered. It will take a strong effort by California geoscientists to ensure that the state school board lives up to the commitment made to the earth sciences in the standards. Given the board’s fondness for the university entrance requirements, that effort needs to include a push by UC and CSU geoscience faculty to include earth science there as well.

Quotes from California Code, Standards, and Framework

California Education Code (dating from the late 1980’s)

“51225.3.  (a) Commencing with the 1988-89 school year, no pupil shall receive a diploma of graduation from high school who, while in
grades 9 to 12, inclusive, has not completed all of the following:...
      (C) Two courses in science, including biological and physical sciences.”

Note that it does not specify which physical science courses are acceptable. Read the full code at

Content Standards for California Public Schools (passed in 1998)

"The standards for grades nine through twelve are divided into four content strands: physics, chemistry, biology/life sciences, and earth

"The Science Content Standards serves as the basis of statewide student assessments, the science curriculum framework, and the evaluation of
instructional materials. The Science Framework for California Public Schools is being revised to align with the standards. The framework will
suggest ways in which to use the standards and make connections within and across grades; it will also provide guidance for instructional

"The high school science standards require more than two years of science courses for students to achieve the breadth and depth described.
Schools and districts will be challenged to develop a science curriculum that meets the needs of their students and provides them the maximum
opportunity to learn the standards while encouraging students to study further in science....

"The Science Content Standards reflects the desired content of science curriculum in California public schools. This content should be taught
so that students have the opportunity to build connections that link science to technology and societal impacts. Science, technology, and
societal issues are strongly connected to community health, population, natural resources, environmental quality, natural and human-induced
hazards, and other global challenges. The standards should be viewed as the foundation for understanding these issues."

See full document at

Draft California Science Framework for K-12 Public Schools

From the introductory chapter (Chapter 1):

“The Science Framework for California Public Schools is the blueprint for reform of science curriculum, instruction, professional preparation and development, and instructional materials in this state. It outlines the implementation of the Science Content Standards for California Public Schools (adopted by the State Board of Education in 1998) and connects the learning of science with the fundamental skills of reading, writing, and mathematics. The Science Content Standards are a concise description of what to teach at specific grade levels, and this framework extends those guidelines by providing the scientific background and the classroom context....

 “The California Standards Tests for grades 9-11 are content specific depending upon the science courses in which they are enrolled. Blueprints for these tests and sample questions are made publicly available by the California Department of Education. It is recommended that local education agencies review and (as necessary) improve their high school science programs so that:
1) All high school science courses that meet state or local graduation requirements, or UC/CSU entrance requirements, are based on the Science Content Standards;
2) Every laboratory science course is standards-based and ensures that students master both content-specific and investigation and experimentation standards;
3) Every science program ensures that students are prepared to be successful on the California Standards Tests;
4) All students take, at minimum, two years of laboratory science providing fundamental knowledge in at least two of the following content strands: biology/life sciences, chemistry, and physics. Laboratory courses in earth sciences are acceptable if they have as prerequisites (or provide basic knowledge in) biology, chemistry, or physics.”

See full document at

Letter from Milling and Orr to California State Board of Education President Reed Hastings

February 1, 2002

Reed Hastings, President
California State Board of Education
721 Capitol Mall
Sacramento, CA 95814

Dear Mr. Hastings:

We are writing on behalf of the American Geological Institute regarding the de-emphasis of Earth Science education in the proposed California high school science curriculum.

The Institute, a federation comprised of 39 scientific, educational, and professional geoscience societies, is specifically concerned with the proposal contained on page 9 (lines 7-10) of the January 25, 2002 Draft California Science Framework for K-12 Public Schools. The proposal states: "All students take, at minimum, two years of laboratory science providing fundamental knowledge in at least two of the following content strands: biology/life science, chemistry, and physics. Laboratory courses in earth sciences are acceptable if they have as prerequisite (or provide basic knowledge in) biology, chemistry, or physics." In our opinion, if this proposal is ratified by the California State Board of Education, it will be a step backwards for the State of California and a detriment to high school students in the State. Earth Science education will provide students a better understanding of the environmental, water resource, and energy issues facing the State of California.

 The National Science Education Standards developed by the National Academy of Sciences/National Research Council identify Earth Science as a core science curriculum area that integrates chemistry, physics, and biology in an applied context at all grade levels. Earth Science is the discipline that best facilitates an integrated working knowledge of science by all students. AGI strongly supports the NAS/NRC science standards and believes they provide a basis for improving science literacy in our Nation's public schools. Many states, including Colorado, Florida, Ohio, North Carolina, and New York, have embraced the new science standards and incorporated a strong Earth Science component in their cuwrriculum. As an integral component of the standards, Earth Science provides students with a better understanding of the world around them and affords a context for an improved appreciation of issues dealing with development and utilization of natural resources, mitigation of natural hazards, and options for improved management of our environment. It is critical for all students to gain a better understanding of these issues.

The Earth Sciences have greatly benefited the State of California from both economic and societal standpoints. The state's early economic well-being was dependent on Earth Scientists developing its natural resources, incwluding precious metals, petroleum, and water resources. Today, the professional Earth Scientists play a critical role in guiding development of California's land use and environmental policies as well as assessing and mitigating the effects of natural hazards such as earthquakes, flooding, and landslides. Additionally, the magnificent natural beauty of California, its mountains, desert, and coastline are the results of geologic processes. It is only through a high school level Earth Science course that California students can develop a better awareness and appreciation of the world they live in.

We believe that high school students in the State of California should be encouraged and given the option to study Earth Science as a core science credit course to meet graduation requirements. The State of California, the United States, and all nations of the world have a significant dependence on the wise development of natural resources and prudent environmental protection of the Earth in order to maintain and improve our standard of living. Earth Science is the one discipline in which students learn about Earth processes, its environment, and natural resources. Students must gain this knowledge to become better citizens in order to make informed decisions based on science as they join the electorate.

In summary, AGI urges you and all members of the California State Board of Education to reevaluate the need and opportunities to include Earth Science with Biology, Chemistry, and Physics as a course option for students to meet their high school science graduation requirement. Additionally, Earth Science concepts and principles should be included in the high school California Standards Exit Tests.

We would be pleased to address any questions you may have related to our recommendations and to meet with the Board to provide additional information and discuss our request in greater detail. For your evaluation and review we have enclosed an AGI packet providing background information on the Institute's programs and activities.

Dr. Marcus E. Milling
Executive Director
American Geological Institute
Dr. Franklin M. Orr, Jr.
Dean, School of Earth Sciences
Stanford University

Sources:  California Department of Education

Please send any comments or requests for information to the AGI Government Affairs Program at

Contributed by David Applegate, AGI Government Affairs Program.

Posted February 25, 2002

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