Florida Journal for Educational Research  

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 therein (AEB).

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 their districts.




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.

Survey Instrument

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, 1990).

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.

Data Analysis

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.


Results and Discussion

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.

Table 1

Means and Standard Deviations of Students' Scores on the Florida Environmental Literacy Survey

Subscale Mean SD
Knowledge Assessment 8.45 4.67
Attitude Survey 102.05 11.31
Necessary Environmental Behaviors 21.54 2.86
Active Environmental Behaviors 16.68 3.71
Political Action Rating 1.54 1.24

Note. N=369.

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 action strategy.

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 environment.

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.

Correlational Analyses

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.

Table 2

Zero-order Correlations Between Subscales of the FELS

Knowledge Assessment .38** .12* .09 .37**
Environmental Attitude   .60** .26** .35**
Necessary Environmental Behaviors     .25** .13*
Active Environmental Behaviors       .08
Note. *p<.05; **p<.01.


Conclusions and Recommendations

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 this manner.

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, 1994).

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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