An Update On Evolution in Texas

By Sean Cavanagh — March 28, 2009 2 min read
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I’ve received more detail on the precise wording of changes made to the Texas science standards, which were approved by the state board of education yesterday. Since quite a few Ed Week readers are likely to have followed this debate closely, I’m providing an update on where things stand.

The board approved new science standards yesterday by a 13-2 vote. As previously reported, its members voted to strip out language saying that students should be taught the “strengths and weaknesses” of evolution. That wording was opposed by many scientists, who said it denigrated evolutionary theory. There’s little doubt scientists are happy to see it go.

Board members instead approved language that places an emphasis on “scientific” examinations of evolution. During their discussion, some members of the panel said they saw the wording as a compromise. The standards now say that students should:

“In all fields of science analyze, evaluate, and critique scientific explanations by using empirical evidence, logical reasoning and experimental and observational testing, including examining all sides of the scientific evidence of those scientific explanations so as to encourage critical thinking by the student.”

I’d note that the language bears some similarity to the wording approved in Florida’s state standards last year, after a heavily publicized debate. Florida officials inserted wording describing the “scientific theory of” evolution in the document. That decision, though it disappointed some observers, was also regarded as a compromise between the various factions.

The board also defeated two controversial amendments, supported by board chairman Don McLeroy, which would have called for students to critically analyze two key pieces of evolutionary theory: common ancestry and natural selection. Scientific organizations said those two proposals singled out common ancestry and natural selection for special criticism, or suggested they are somehow in doubt, when in fact they’re broadly supported by years of scientific research. The two amendments were defeated by 8-7 votes.

Even so, other wording approved by the board is likely to receive extensive scrutiny from scientists. One amendment, which was accepted by a 9-6 vote, says students should “analyze and evaluate a variety of fossil types, such as transitional fossils, proposed transitional fossils, fossil lineages, and significant fossil deposits with regard to their appearance, completeness and alignment with scientific explanations in light of this fossil data.”

Another amendment was substituted for the earlier language calling for students to weigh the “sufficiency or insufficiency of natural selection to explain the complexity of the cell.” The replacement language says that Texas students should “analyze and evaluate scientific explanations concerning the complexity of the cell.”

For those who have been following the discussions in Texas, how satisfied are you with the language approved by the Texas board?

A version of this news article first appeared in the Curriculum Matters blog.