Assessment

Evolution Is Only Theory of Life’s Origins Included in Draft of Science NAEP

By Sean Cavanagh — August 08, 2005 4 min read
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While debates over so-called alternatives to evolution play out across the country, those controversial concepts have not found a place so far in the science portion of the influential test known as “the nation’s report card.”

The board that sets policy for that test, the National Assessment of Educational Progress, was presented Aug. 5 with a draft of the framework that will act as a basis for a revised version of the science exam.

That draft document offers a thorough treatment of Charles Darwin’s widely accepted scientific theory of evolution, and references its core principles, such as natural selection, common descent, and mutation, as a basis for testing students at the 12th grade level. It makes no mention of alternatives meant to challenge that theory, such as creationism, or “intelligent design,” the controversial concept that the natural world, including the origins of human life, may have been guided by an unnamed, possibly supernatural creator. That concept is being pushed by school officials in several states, mostly notably in Dover, Pa.

“Evolution is the consequence of natural selection and differential reproduction,” the draft NAEP science framework says. “Natural selection and common descent provide the scientific explanation for the history of life on Earth as depicted in the fossil record, as indicated by chemical similarities, and as evidence within the diversity of living organisms.”

That draft, developed by two committees whose members included scientists, state officials, testing experts, teachers, and others, is expected to be revised before it is released for public comment in October. It is scheduled to be voted on in final form by the National Assessment Government Board, which sets policy for the NAEP, in November. Frameworks and subject-matter tests are regularly updated by the board, known as NAGB.

The science framework will eventually be used to craft a new version of the NAEP science test for 4th, 8th, and 12th graders. That test will be administered for the first time in 2009, replacing the current edition, which has been in place since 1996 and also covers evolution extensively.

Younger Bush: No Comment

Senta Raizen, who co-chaired a committee that worked on the framework, told governing board members that the draft document was guided by two of the most highly regarded sets of educational standards available, the National Science Education Standards, published by the congressionally chartered National Research Council; and Benchmarks for Science Literacy, published by the American Association for the Advancement of Science. Both documents treat evolution as a central foundation of scientific study. Ms. Raizen is the director of the National Center for Improving Science Education, in Arlington, Va. That center is a division of WestEd, a nonprofit research and development organization based in San Francisco.

“Our instruction from scientists was to base [the framework] on sound science, and that’s what we’ve done,” Ms. Raizen told board members. Before making her presentation, she added that added that she had “no sense” that board members were not satisfied with the draft document.

Sitting only a few paces away from Ms. Raizen during the discussion was Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, who joined the governing board last year. Just last week, the governor’s brother waded into the debate over evolution’s place in the classroom when President Bush told a group of Texas reporters that he believed schools should be allowed to teach intelligent design alongside Darwin’s theory.

After leaving the session, Gov. Bush declined to comment on whether he believes intelligent design has a place in public school classrooms.

NAGB Chairman Darvin M. Winick told others on the panel that he hoped they would actively seek outside comments on the science framework. The board followed that process before adopting a new framework for reading last year, he said. Those discussions occasionally touched on the ongoing controversy over how best to teach reading, a debate commonly known as the “reading wars.” But they also resulted in a stronger NAEP test in that subject, Mr. Winick contended.

“My serious plea for all of you [is] … to see that these documents are circulated” to scientists, as well as the general public, Mr. Winick said.

Softening on Seniors?

In other action, board members said they were not likely to pursue a mandatory, state-by-state NAEP test at the 12th grade level at this time, as the Bush administration had sought. Instead, board members said they will ask their staff to explore two other options: conducting tests of high school seniors at the state level on a voluntary basis, and implementing such tests on a “pilot” basis, possibly for as few as eight to 10 states.

NAEP is currently given to 12th graders as part of a more limited, nationwide sample. Board members have expressed worries about making that test mandatory for all states as a condition of receiving Title I funds—as is currently the case for 4th and 8th grade—partly because of concerns about low participation and motivation among high school seniors. Congress has also not provided funding for such an expansion of the test in the latest version of the fiscal 2006 budget. Mr. Winick said that budgetary concerns and logistical worries about trying to craft a mandatory 12th grade NAEP by 2007, as the board had originally discussed, factored into board members’ thinking.

“I don’t think the interest in 12th grade NAEP has changed any,” Mr. Winick said, “but it would appear the time schedule has changed. … It may or may not be the right time to have to make a decision about the 12th grade NAEP now.”

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