High school students in a science classroom. (iStock)

Science educators aren’t exactly thrilled with the Education Department under Betsy DeVos.

They weren’t fans when President Trump recently pulled the United States out of the landmark Paris climate agreement (which all countries had signed except Syria and Nicaragua) — and DeVos issued a statement in support. And many educators were concerned when the Heartland Institute, a conservative think tank that strongly backs DeVos and does not believe in human-induced climate change, sent to thousands of K-12 and college science teachers materials that reject basic principles on which nearly all climate scientists agree. A group of Democratic senators asked the Education Department whether DeVos or her staff had anything to do with this Heartland project.

Now, the National Science Teachers Association and the STEM Education Coalition have sent a letter to the Education Department saying it is misinterpreting the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), the federal K-12 education law that replaced No Child Left Behind, in regard to science and school accountability plans.

The Education Department did not respond to a query about this issue.

The department is reviewing state plans for holding schools accountable as required by ESSA. The law was passed in December 2015 to replace the flawed NCLB, which went into effect in 2002 and dictated the use of English language arts and math standardized test scores to hold schools accountable for student achievement. In the years after NCLB was passed, many schools began giving short shrift to subjects other than reading and math, including science. That ran counter to a push in the Obama administration to increase STEM education — that is, science, technology, engineering and math — but it happened nevertheless.

The letter sent to the department, signed by David L. Evans, executive director of the NSTA, and James F. Brown, executive director of the STEM Education Coalition, says the department is telling states that science cannot be a priority as an accountability measure in evaluating student achievement under ESSA.

The Evans/Brown letter refers specifically to a June 13 letter the department sent to Delaware Education Secretary Susan Bunting regarding Delaware’s ESSA accountability plan, saying in part:

We are writing to express our concern that the U.S. Department of Education is discouraging states from including student performance in science as a priority within their accountability frameworks — something that is clearly permitted under the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA). Specifically, we are referring to the Department’s June 13 letter to Delaware Education Secretary Susan Bunting regarding Delaware’s ESSA accountability plan.

Actively discouraging states from including science as an ESSA accountability measure would be a poor policy choice. It is also inconsistent with numerous public statements made by President Trump and Secretary DeVos regarding the importance of science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) education and the goal of maintaining a world-class American workforce.

High-quality STEM education — that starts with science in the early years — plays a monumental role in ensuring our nation’s competitiveness in the global economy and technological leadership. We should not be backing away from science being taught and measured in our schools; instead, we should be encouraging state leaders to pursue ambitious policies that prioritize science education.

Fifteen years of data and experience with the No Child Left Behind Act clearly demonstrated that the law’s narrow focus on math and reading has negatively impacted science education. The time and resources devoted to science education — especially in our nation’s elementary classrooms — plummeted because science scores were not counted in many states. We have already learned the destructive lesson that “if it’s not tested, it’s not taught,” and we should not repeat past mistakes.

And Delaware wasn’t the only state to receive such a letter from the department.

To be sure, the Trump administration wasn’t the first to interpret the ESSA law this way. In January 2017, shortly before leaving office, the Obama administration issued ESSA accountability guidance that bars the use of science as an academic achievement indicator:

B-17. May a State include other measures within the Academic Achievement indicator, such as achievement on the State’s science assessment?

No. The only measures a State may include within its Academic Achievement indicator in addition to the required measure of student performance on the statewide reading/language arts and mathematics assessments under ESEA [Education and Secondary Education Act, of which ESSA is the latest version] section 1111(b)(2)(B)(v)(I) are the two optional measures: (1) an achievement index or similar measure of student performance in reading/language arts and mathematics at multiple academic achievement levels above or below proficient (see question B-10 and B-11 ); and (2) measures of student growth in reading/language arts and mathematics for high schools (see questions B-14 and B-15). A State may, however, include other statewide achievement-related measures, such as results on statewide science assessments or student growth for elementary and middle schools, as an Academic Progress or School Quality or Student Success indicator.

The Education Department under DeVos has rejected other guidance on education issues set by the Obama administration. For example, she suspended regulations that President Obama had imposed that were aimed at cracking down on for-profit colleges.

ESSA was passed after states became disillusioned with NCLB and the heavy-handed way that the Obama administration was implementing education policy. ESSA was supposed to allow students much more flexibility in determining their own accountability plans, and DeVos has said repeatedly that she is determined to allow local control. Some of the department’s other responses to states about their ESSA accountability plans seemed prescriptive to some local-control advocates. New Mexico and Nevada, for example, were asked to answer a number of questions, including how teachers would be assigned to achieve equity.

After receiving blowback from state- and local-control advocates, the department appeared to back off and said its letter to Delaware was only advice, not a prescription.

What the final state accountability plans will look like — and how much control the Education Department will ultimately exercise — remains to be seen.