How environmentally literate are students in this country? While a number of prior studies have answered pieces of this question, the sad truth has been that we really don't know the answer.
Now some help is available. A truly groundbreaking study was released last month, called “Green at Fifteen?, How 15-year-olds perform in environmental science and geoscience in PISA 2006", which comes closer to answering this question than anything I've seen before.
It's a bit ironic that this study wasn't done by any U.S. agency or NGO; it was done by the international Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development. Green at 15? offers the "first comprehensive and internationally comparative database of students' knowledge about the environment and environment-related issues, including information on the sources of students' awareness of environmental science, their attitudes towards the environment and how these attitudes interrelate with their performance in environmental science."
There is a great deal of useful information in this study to consider as we design new programs and policies. Equally important is our ability to cite the report as an important environmental literacy benchmark when we educate policy-makers and decision-makers about the growing environmental literacy gap.
The bottom line? The average U.S. student scores only just above basic proficiency - not news to most of us, but solid confirmation for what our experience has been telling us.
From a policy perspective, the big take-home is that the USA ranks 34th out of the 57 countries surveyed in both environmental science and geoscience, and is consistently below the OCED averages in almost all categories. True, we beat out Uruguay and Thailand. But we fell below Estonia, Croatia, and the Slovak and Czech Republics as well as Canada, Japan, Australia, Russia, and the UK.
The study opens with the statement that "the challenge for education is not only to produce more and better trained environmental scientists, but also to support informed and motivated citizens who are capable of understanding, interpreting and acting upon sophisticated scientific theory and evidence." Yes, it only looked at environmental science, rather than the more comprehensive fields of environmental and sustainability education which also include the social sciences. But at least it looked at the ability of students to put their knowledge to use. Surprisingly, it did not include climate change as one of the key "environmental issues" that it directly assessed. One other take-home message worth nothing: "students with more disadvantaged socio-economic status are no less likely to be committed to tackling environmental issues."
This is a terrific first step. What we need next is to get the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP, sometimes called "The Nation's Report Card") administered by the Department of Education to include environmental education in their schedule of subjects routinely assessed. Then we'll have a much better idea where our students stand in terms of environmental literacy.
I haven't had the chance to dig fully into the report with the attention it deserves, so I particularly welcome comments from those who find the time to review it in detail.