Evolution, Climate Change on Chopping Block? N.M. Science Standards Get Airing

By Stephen Sawchuk — October 16, 2017 3 min read
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Update: A few days after this post ran, New Mexico removed some of the controversial language from the standards. Make sure to check out our follow-up story to get the full update.

Climate change. Evolution. The age of the Earth.

New Mexico officials have managed to hit a trifecta of science controversies in the state’s draft science standards for K-12 schools, which will be debated at the first and only public hearing today in Santa Fe.

The standards are based on the Next Generation Science Standards, shared expectations used by 18 states and the District of Columbia. But the state has proposed several key additions and deletions, seemingly to appease those who dispute climate change or who adhere to beliefs among some Christians that the world is only a few thousand years old.

  • The words “rise” or “change” in two standards about global temperatures are replaced with “fluctuations.”
  • One standard on collecting evidence from rock strata to understand the geologic time scale deletes a reference to the Earth’s age of 4.6 billion years and replaces it with “geologic” history.
  • A standard dealing with the process of evolution deletes that word entirely, replacing it with a standard that asks students to construct an explanation based on evidence that biological diversity is “influenced by” things like competition for limited resources, the proliferation of organisms that are better equipped to survive, and genetic variations in species.

There is overwhelming consensus among scientists and geologists that the Earth is billions of years old, that evolution is a primary biological process explaining the diversity of life on the planet, and that the temperature of the Earth is rising.

The proposed changes have brought a groundswell of criticism, both locally and throughout the country. Over 60 scientists associated with the Los Alamos National Laboratory took out a full-page ad in the Santa Fe paper of record, the New Mexican.

“There is absolutely no scientific rationale for weakening the treatment of these subjects in New Mexico K-12 education,” the scientists wrote.

Over the weekend, a group of scientists led a “teach in” to protest the changes. It was organized in part by a member of the Santa Fe school board, which opposes the changes, in front of the state education department, which is also located in Santa Fe.

In local newspaper reports, Christopher Ruszkowski, the New Mexico education secretary-designate has underscored that the standards are still in draft form and could be modified.

A key hearing—the only public hearing on the standards, which were drafted last month and have been out for public comment—will happen today.

The NGSS are in use in about 18 states, informed standards in other states, and have been adopted separately by dozens of districts. Originally released in 2013, they put a heavier emphasis on having students learn the content by “doing” science; teachers are expected to open nearly every unit with an opportunity for students to observe phenomena, record data, and generate hypotheses. The standards are still so new that teachers and educators have struggled to find matching curricula.

New Mexico is not the first state to alter some of the NGSS’ language on these topics. West Virginia also softened standards about global climate change. Wyoming also flirted with some changes before adopting its own set of science standards rather than the NGSS; its final set asks students to consider “positives and negatives” of temperature change. And South Dakota, among other changes, also deleted the standard referencing the age of the Earth.

For more NGSS controversies:

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