Measuring the Environmental Literacy of High School Students
Margaret B. Bogan
Jacksonville State University
Jeffrey D. Kromrey
University of South Florida
Florida Journal of Educational Research
Fall 1996, Vol. 36(1)
The Florida Environmental Literacy Survey was used to determine the
environmental literacy of high school students. Environmental literacy is
defined as: knowing ecology (KAS); being attitudinally predisposed to the
environment (ATT); valuing responsible environmental behaviors (NEB);
participating in responsible environmental behaviors (AEB); and knowing
political action strategies (PAR). Students averaged a score of 37% in their
knowledge of ecology (KAS); held a positive attitude towards the environment
(ATT); knew environmentally responsible behaviors (NEB); and some participated
Students demonstrated limited knowledge of political action strategies when
asked to respond to an open ended question about civic action. (PAR). The
Florida Legislature has mandated that the public educational system, from
kindergarten through the university, act as the primary delivery system to
create environmentally literate citizens. The legislature recognized that
environmental education is critical to maintaining the delicate relationships
among all forms of life and to preserve the earth's capability to sustain life
in the most healthful, enjoyable and productive environment possible (Florida
Statutes, 229.8005, sec. 30, para. 2, 1989). The Office of Environmental
Education was charged with the responsibilities (in part) to: (a) assess
environmental education needs in all school districts, (b) assist with
environmental education comprehensive plans, and (c) evaluate the success of
student and inservice training (Initiatives Bulletin, 1990).
Within this context, an evaluation of the environmental education curriculum
in two school districts in central Florida was conducted. The purposes of the
evaluation were to provide: (a) an indication of the impact of the previous
decades' environmental educators' efforts on the knowledge and attitudes of
students, (b) a guide for curriculum development, (c) a data-based indication of
needs against which program proposals can be measured, and (d) a baseline to
serve researchers in the decades ahead. It should be noted that prior to the
1989 legislation, environmental education was taught primarily at the discretion
of the individual school districts. Curricula, when present, varied widely and
depended on the interests of individual teachers and the monetary allocations of
Three hundred and seventy students (n=370) participated from 14 high schools
in two central Florida districts. The two districts were selected because they:
(a) are geographically contiguous, (b) represent urban and rural demographic
regions, and (c) offer community-supported environmental education nature center
programs employing the expertise and services of teachers/schools, park
rangers/facilities, state agencies and the higher education community. The 14
participating high schools were randomly sampled from a total of 29 high schools
in the two districts. The student sample was obtained using a systematic random
sample of the total group of seniors in the participating schools.
The Florida Environmental Literacy Survey (FELS) was built upon the concepts
presented in the "Conceptual Frameworks for Environmental Education in
Florida" (East Central Florida Environmental Education Service Project,
1990). These frameworks encompass the ideas delineated in the
"awareness-to-action" model for interdisciplinary environmental
education. In this model, the environmentally literate individual is
conceptualized as one who (a) commands cognitive and affective knowledge about
his or her biological and physical surroundings, (b) possesses political
know-how (Bogan & Phillips, 1989), and (c) displays a willingness to engage
in responsible environmental behaviors (Hines, Hungersford & Tomera, 1987).
Specifically, the FELS was designed to measure environmental literacy, defined
as (a) knowing the scientific principles of ecology, (b) being aware of the
potential magnitude of human impact on the biosphere, (c) showing concern for
all living species, (d) valuing responsible environmental behaviors, and (e)
participating in political action strategies that lead to planetary well-being
(California Department of Education, 1990; Hammond, 1988; McClaren, 1989; NASSP,
The FELS is divided into six subtests, as follows: 1) the Knowledge
Assessment Subtest (KAS), consisting of 23 items (score range = 0 - 25, with
higher scores representing greater knowledge), is a measure of students'
knowledge of the principles of ecology as offered through Florida's basic,
average, and honors biology courses (Fleetwood, 1974); 2) the 27-item Attitude
Survey (ATT), with a score range of 27 to 135, is a measure of general
ecological attitudes (Asche, 1972); 3) the Necessary Environmental Behaviors
(NEB) subtest (score range = 5 - 25, with higher scores indicating greater
recognition of necessary environmental behaviors) was designed to measure the
degree to which students perceive that five specific environmental behaviors
(conserving water/energy; planting vegetation; political activism for
environmental concerns) are necessary for planetary health; 4) the Active
Environmental Behaviors (AEB) subtest (score range = 5 - 25, with higher scores
representing greater participation in necessary environmental behaviors) is a
self report on students' participation in these specific environmental
behaviors; 5) the Political Action Rating (PAR) is a constructed-response
measure of students' political action knowledge, with a score range of one to
five. In the PAR, students were asked to read a newspaper article (1 paragraph
in length) that suggested that a local lake was becoming too polluted for
community use. Students were asked to recommend political action strategies that
they might employ to gain public support for an environmental problem. The sixth
and final part of the FELS was an open-ended question designed to measure
students' perceptions of Florida's most critical environmental concerns. The KAS
and ATT subtests were adapted from previously developed instruments (Fleetwood,
1974; Asche, 1972), while the remaining components of the FELS were developed
for this research project.
Validation Procedures. Because the KAS was developed in North
Carolina, a validation of the content of this assessment in articulation with
the Florida curriculum frameworks was undertaken. A panel consisting of two
environmental chemists, two secondary life science teachers, and one
environmental education specialist reviewed the test content. Minor adaptation
of the test content (substituting Florida species for northern species) was made
where necessary. Similarly, the ATT was reviewed by a panel of 20 environmental
educators. Minor modifications of items to reflect changes in the knowledge base
of environmental issues were made. Following the revisions to the instruments,
the entire FELS was pilot tested using a sample of 56 high school students.
Based upon the pilot results, three items were deleted from the Attitude Survey
because of low item-total correlations. However, the results of the pilot test
indicated acceptable levels of internal consistency and inter-rater agreement
for the six components.
Reliability Estimates. Reliability estimates were generated for each
subtest of the FELS. The estimates of internal consistency were adequate for
each component of the FELS. The KR-20 for the KAS was .81, and Cronbach's alpha
coefficients for the ATT, NEB, and AEB were .83, .76, and .75, respectively.
Reliability for the PAR was estimated using generalizability analysis, yielding
an estimated G-coefficient of .95.
The survey data were analyzed using measures of central tendency
and dispersion to provide information about the level of environmental literacy
of the high school sample. In addition, correlational statistics were used to
explore relationships between participants' knowledge, attitude and behaviors.
Means and standard deviations for the first five subtests of the FELS are
presented in Table 1. These data are described below, for each subtest.
Knowledge Assessment (KAS). For the 23-item KAS subtest, the high school
sample obtained a mean of 8.45 and a standard deviation of 4.67. With a possible
range of scores from zero to 23, these data suggest an overall low level of
ecology knowledge. Only 19% of the students answered more than one-half of the
items correctly. Nine students (2.4% of the sample) achieved a score of 80% or
higher on the knowledge subtest. These scores are comparable to those obtained
by Fleetwood in 1972.
Means and Standard Deviations of Students' Scores on the Florida
Environmental Literacy Survey
|Necessary Environmental Behaviors
|Active Environmental Behaviors
|Political Action Rating
Overall, student knowledge of the principles of ecology was very limited.
These results may be, in part, a result of the length of time between the
students' completion of a biology course and the time of this assessment. These
findings may also indicate that the curriculum content measured by the KAS was
not taught or that students' did not retain the information from the curriculum.
Attitude Survey (ATT). For the 27-item ecological attitude subtest,
the high school students obtained a mean of 102.05 and a standard deviation of
11.31. With the items on the ATT scored on a 5-point scale, the possible score
range is 27 to 135. The obtained sample mean suggests that students, on average,
have a positive attitude towards the environment.
Necessary Environmental Behaviors (NEB). The five NEB items were
scored one through five, in a "strongly agree" to "strongly
disagree" scale. The high school sample yielded a sample mean 21.54, and a
standard deviation of 2.86. With a possible range of 5 to 25, these data
indicate that the students in the sample value environmentally sound behaviors.
Active Environmental Behaviors (AEB). The self report on participation
in environmentally sound behaviors contained five items, scored on a one to five
scale identical to the scoring of the NEB. The AEB subtest yielded a sample mean
of 16.68, with a standard deviation of 3.71. The average student response was
only slightly higher than the neutral response (a score of 15 for the five
items). Twenty-six percent of the students in the sample scored 14 or less on
this subtest, indicating that they tended to not actively participate in
environmentally sound behaviors.
Political Action Rating (PAR). The open-ended responses to the PAR
were evaluated by two independent raters using the following criteria: (a) data
had to be collected to validate the pollution allegations, (b) a report had to
be written based on the data collected in the investigation, (c) the media had
to be used to apprise citizens of the situation, (d) the government had to be
informed of the progress of the study and asked to intervene in the situation
and (e) a strategy to ameliorate the situation had to be proposed. Participants
accumulated one point for each of the five strategies mentioned.
Students demonstrated limited facility in knowledge of political action
strategies. Twenty-two percent (22%) of the students in the study did not or
chose not to respond to the item; 4.3% gave no response which fit the evaluation
criteria. Twenty-one percent (21%) of the students suggested the validation of
the newspaper's allegation that the lake was polluted. Once gathered, said data
would be committed to a written report by only 2.7% of the respondents. Only
16.5% of the survey participants suggested governmental intervention. An
especially troubling finding was that the suggested governmental interventions
cited were controlling or punitive in nature.
Fifty-seven percent (57%) of the students indicated that the media should be
used to inform citizens of the impending problem. Approximately 48% of the
students reported a mechanism through which the pollution problem could be
ameliorated. Very few students presented a multifaceted strategic approach to
the scenario. Raters agreed that three of the 369 participants (less than 1%)
offered a response that fit the entire evaluation criteria. Nine participants
(less than 3%) offered four of the five elements of an effective political
Areas of Critical Environmental Concern for Florida
Students were asked to select three environmental problems from a list of
eight that they felt were of most critical concern to the Florida environment.
In addition, students had the option to add to the list of concerns. As a group,
the sample of high school students perceived a need to: (a) educate the public
(62%), (b) manage wildlife habitat (53%), (c) monitor industrial pollution
(53%), and (d) manage water resources for human consumption (34%). Because more
than 50% of the respondents indicated that monitoring industrial pollution is of
critical concern to Florida, these students may seem more aware of general
environmental problems than they are of those specific to Florida.
Additional concerns about Florida's environment included (a) public
indifference towards Florida's environmental concerns (31%), (b) the influx of
human population into the state (29%), (c) land use management practice for the
human population (19%) and (d) lack of a sufficiently large tax base from which
to pay for Florida's environmental concerns (17%).
Students did not cite the rise in human population in the state as one of
Florida's most critical concerns. They did not connect the human population as
underlying extant environmental problems. Even though all other problems are
directly dependent on the human population, 71% of the students did not consider
the influx of the human population to be of critical concern to the Florida
Findings in this area are consistent with findings reported by other
investigators. For two decades, scholars in the field of environmental education
have investigated environmental attitudes and knowledge and their influence on
human behavior (Perkes, 1973; Bruvold, 1973; Schmidt & Buys, 1974; Passineau,
1975; Kellert, 1978). Studies that focus on specific content areas (dealing with
attitudes towards wildlife, growth management, and the human-wilderness
interface) indicate that respondents do not connect the science of ecology with
either the human behaviors needed to protect habitats or with environmental
policy development. On the other hand, research participants typically indicate
great concern for maintaining environmental quality (deHaven-Smith, 1987; Duda,
1987; LaHart, 1978). The high school students who participated in the current
study appear to be following this pattern.
Zero-order correlations for the sections of the Florida Environmental
Literacy Survey are presented in Table 2. The highest correlation was that
observed between the environmental attitude measure (ATT) and recognition of
necessary environmental behaviors (NEB) subtests (r=.60, p<.01). Moderate
levels of correlation were observed between the KAS and ATT subtests (r=.38,
p<.01), between the KAS and PAR subtests (r=.37, p<.01) and between the
ATT and PAR subtests (r=.35, p<.01). Additional bivariate correlations were
more modest, although statistically significantly different from zero: a
correlation of .26 (p<.01) between ecological attitude (ATT) and active
participation in environmental behaviors (AEB), a correlation of .25 (p<.01)
between recognition of environmental behaviors and participation in these
behaviors (NEB and AEB), a correlation of .13 (p<.05) between NEB and PAR
scores, and a correlation of .12 (p<.05) between KAS and NEB scores.
The environmental attitude subscale is one component in three of the four
obtained correlations larger than .30. These findings suggest the importance of
attitude in the assessment of environmental literacy, and in the development of
environmental literacy curricula. Congruent with the awareness-to-action model,
simple awareness and knowledge about the environment may not drive individual
action about the environment. Within the limits of correlational research, these
findings suggest the importance of considering the influence of attitudes when
developing curriculum process models for environmental education.
Zero-order Correlations Between Subscales of the FELS
Note. *p<.05; **p<.01.
|Necessary Environmental Behaviors
|Active Environmental Behaviors
The efforts in environmental education in the two districts participating in
this study yielded neither the desired curriculum outcomes based on the ecology
component of the course standards for biology nor the desired learning based on
the 1989 curriculum frameworks. Environmental education delivered through
science content does not engage the expressed intentions of the "awareness
to action" model for environmental education. The current delivery media of
science education do not facilitate achieving environmental literacy. The good
intentions of the legislative mandates are therefore unlikely to be achieved in
Course standards that integrate disciplines should be developed. Such
integration facilitates the creation of and development of important links and
connections across subject-specific content areas. Cross-disciplinary curriculum
activities that encourage participants to define their personal views and the
basis for these views should be presented in the environmental education
classroom since attitudes play an important part in actuating behavior. Students
should participate in: (a) non-threatening values clarification forums to gain
an understanding of belief and knowledge-based attitudinal biases about
environmental issues, (b) community action projects, working with elected
officials, and (c) active reflective writing (Bogan, Easton, & Kromrey,
The findings of this research suggest a need for systematic, comprehensive
assessment of the environmental literacy of Florida's high school students to
determine if the level of environmental literacy of the general population of
high school seniors is as low as that suggested by this sample. If these results
are verified by such an assessment, curricular alternatives can be generated and
tested in an attempt to ameliorate this apparent level of illiteracy.
Determinations of the efficacy of environmental education programs should be
routinely conducted. Longitudinal studies will be required to effectively assess
environmental literacy. Researchers in environmental education should strive to
answer the question, "How do we become environmentally literate?" The
interdisciplinary nature of environmental education necessitates the pursuit of
systematic research programs that allow for the development of an understanding
of the complexities that content, attitude, and action present.
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