A national report says Virginia is failing in climate change education. State officials dispute that.

By: and - October 13, 2020 12:01 am

A lifeguard watches over the resort district in Virginia Beach. Coastal Virginia is among the most vulnerable places in the U.S. to sea level rise. (Ned Oliver/Virginia Mercury)

A report by two major educational nonprofits released last week on how states’ science standards for public schools handle climate change gave Virginia a failing grade, citing  “abysmal scores across the board.” 

“Humanity’s impact is downplayed in the standards and is obfuscated by saying ‘natural’ causes of climate change and ‘chemicals’ being released into the environment without stating what chemicals those are,” wrote one of three reviewers who evaluated state standards for the study. 

However, a spokesman for the state’s Department of Education says the report misses the mark because it fails to capture what students are actually taught in Virginia public schools, overlooking more detailed guidance published by the state.

The report, entitled “Making the Grade?: How State Public School Science Standards Address Climate Change,” was issued by the National Center for Science Education and the Texas Freedom Network Education Fund. 

Both groups have been closely involved in advocating for science-based education on settled questions of science like climate change and evolution that have nonetheless become matters of public controversy. 

“The primary recommendation to education policymakers is obvious: revise state science standards as far as necessary to reflect the scientific consensus on climate change,” the report concluded.

The Evidence for Climate Change

There is overwhelming consensus among scientists that the Earth’s climate is warming, and that this warming is largely driven by human action. Although regions have always experienced natural temperature fluctuations, long-term temperature records show an “unequivocal” warming trend since the 1950s. Other measurable changes such as accelerated melting of glaciers and ice sheets, sea level rise and increasingly extreme weather provide further clear evidence that warming is occurring. According to the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, which draws on research by thousands of scientists worldwide, this warming is “extremely likely” (defined as greater than 95% probability) to have been caused by human actions, particularly the release of “unprecedented” levels of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere since the mid-20th century. The U.S. Fourth National Climate Assessment released by the Trump administration in November 2018 similarly found that “observational evidence does not support any credible natural explanations for this amount of warming.” 

Sources: IPCC, Climate Change 2014: Synthesis Report; NASA, “Climate Change: How Do We Know?”; U.S. Fourth National Climate Assessment. 

The current study asked three reviewers to independently examine how state science standards treated climate change with respect to four points: climate change is real, it is caused by human activity, it is affecting and will continue to affect the globe and there are ways for humans to mitigate and adapt to it. 

Reviewers answered six more detailed questions for each of the four points, and the responses were then assigned numeric scores that were combined and weighted to produce a set of final grades. 

Virginia was one of only three states — alongside South Carolina and Pennsylvania — to receive a failing grade on overall evaluations of each of the four points and six questions. 

But Charles Pyle, a spokesman for the Virginia Department of Education, said the authors of the study confirmed that they only reviewed the state’s 2018 science Standards of Learning document — not the more extensive curriculum framework that better reflects what students learn in the classroom.

“That’s the more detailed version of the standards that actually drives curriculum development at the local level,” he added.

The curriculum framework, a more than 200-page document, outlines the lessons and “enduring standards” that students in different grade levels should grasp for a variety of scientific subjects. By fourth grade, for instance, students begin learning about climate. How “large-scale changes such as eutrophication, climate changes and catastrophic disturbances affect ecosystems” should be included as a key idea in the curriculum, according to the state’s framework.

The more detailed document also notes that “human activities have increased the carbon dioxide content in the atmosphere” and that “legislation can promote change in human actions and reverse or stall the negative effects of their actions on the atmosphere.”

“If you want to do a review of what the commonwealth expects will be taught in science classes, then that review has to comprehend the details found in the Standards of Learning curriculum framework,” Pyle said.

Virginia last revised its science curriculum in 2018, a three-year process that gives educators the chance to review the new standards and incorporate them into lessons and student assessments, he added.

All of the commonwealth’s neighbors outperformed Virginia in the rankings. Washington, D.C., Maryland and Kentucky all received grades of B+, while Tennessee received a B-, North Carolina a C- and West Virginia a D. 

Overall, 26 states and the District of Columbia earned a B+ or better in an evaluation of how their public schools address climate change.

Nor are deficiencies in climate change education linked to states’ reliance on fossil fuels: as the report highlights, Wyoming, Alaska, and North Dakota, all of which rely heavily on fossil fuel extraction — in 2016, mining made up more than 20 percent of Wyoming’s total gross domestic product — earned some of the highest grades in the ranking. 

One reviewer quoted in the report expressed surprise at Virginia’s low rank, writing, “I find it discouraging that a coastal state, facing increased risk of hurricanes and sea level rise, does not appear motivated to teach its children about the current and future threats of climate change — and the solutions to those issues.” 

Virginia is experiencing the second-highest rate of sea level rise on the East Coast, trailing only the Gulf Coast. The state is also a regular target of hurricanes, which are becoming more frequent and more intense as global temperatures rise. 

Noting that climate change is “an urgent and pressing challenge for Virginia” that “poses potentially devastating risk to” the state, Gov. Ralph Northam last fall set a statewide target of making Virginia’s electric grid carbon-free by 2050. The newly Democratic-controlled General Assembly subsequently passed a slew of climate change and clean energy legislation, including the landmark Virginia Clean Economy Act. 

Nevertheless, recognition of climate change as occurring and as driven by humans has remained politically controversial. A House resolution that “global warming caused by human activity that increases emissions of greenhouse gases has resulted in a climate and ecological emergency” only passed the House on party lines and failed to make it through the Senate this winter.

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Kate Masters
Kate Masters

Kate grew up in Northern Virginia before moving to the Midwest, earning her degree in journalism from the University of Missouri. She spent a year covering gun violence and public health for The Trace in Boston before joining The Frederick News-Post in Frederick County, Md. Before joining the Mercury in 2020, she covered state and county politics for the Bethesda Beat in Montgomery County, Md. She was named Virginia's outstanding young journalist for 2021 by the Virginia Press Association.

Sarah Vogelsong
Sarah Vogelsong

Sarah is Editor-in-Chief of the Mercury and previously its environment and energy reporter. She has worked for multiple Virginia and regional publications, including Chesapeake Bay Journal, The Progress-Index and The Caroline Progress. Her reporting has won awards from groups such as the Society of Environmental Journalists and Virginia Press Association, and she is an alumna of the Columbia Energy Journalism Initiative and Metcalf Institute Science Immersion Workshop for Journalists.