In the second major blow in as many months to groups seeking to infuse more skepticism into classroom lessons about evolution, the Ohio state school board voted last week to strip language from its academic standards encouraging students to “critically analyze” the established biological theory.
The board voted 11-4 to revise the state’s academic-content standards to delete that wording, effectively reversing a controversial decision the panel made in 2002.
“This was a win for science, a win for students, and a win for the state of Ohio,” board member Martha W. Wise, who supported eliminating the language, said in an interview the day after the Feb. 14 vote.
As part of the same action, the board did away with a state-approved lesson plan for teachers, crafted in 2004, that critics said falsely suggested that mainstream scientists harbored doubts about the theory.
The Ohio vote came less than two months after U.S. District Judge John E. Jones III declared in a sweeping and widely scrutinized decision in a Pennsylvania case that “intelligent design,” a concept that has gained popularity among evolution’s critics, is religion, not science. (“Possible Road Map Seen in Dover Case,” Jan. 4, 2006.)
Intelligent design is the belief that an unnamed force has guided aspects of life’s development. The vast majority of scientists reject that view. They support the theory of evolution, which posits that humans and other living things on Earth have developed through natural selection and random mutation.
Although Judge Jones’ Dec. 20 ruling has legal standing only in the Pennsylvania federal district where it was issued, Ms. Wise said she believes it had a “major impact” in shaping the Ohio board’s thinking. Ms. Wise, a Republican and self-described believer in biblically based creationism, said she opposes teaching religious beliefs in public school science classes, and feared that Ohio’s critical-analysis language left open that possibility. The standards language also left the state vulnerable to a costly legal challenge, she speculated.
The Seattle-based Discovery Institute, which supports the teaching of intelligent design and other alternatives to evolution, expressed disappointment with the board’s action, calling it a “gag order on science” and a “dogmatic approach to education.”
Ohio has been a major player in the ongoing battles over the teaching of evolution. The critical-analysis language, a single statement in the 307-page standards document, was approved four years ago after a highly charged debate over the treatment of evolution. Since then, similar language has emerged in states and districts nationwide.
The Ohio board did not include language promoting intelligent design during its 2002 revision; in fact, the existing standards specifically say that schools should not “mandate the teaching or testing” of that concept.
State standards form the basis for questions on mandatory state tests. Ohio officials told Education Week in response to a survey last year that none of the 38 questions on the 2005 state high school science test specifically mentioned evolution or referred to the topic generally. Test questions were selected randomly, they said, from a bank of questions based on the standards. (“Many States Include Evolution Questions on Assessments,” Dec. 7, 2005)
If any test questions asking students to critically analyze evolution show up on this spring’s test, the state will tell the company that scores the exam not to count the results, said J.C. Benton, a spokesman for the Ohio education department. Science is one of five test subjects Ohio students are required to pass to receive a diploma.
As part of its vote last week, the state board also directed an advisory committee to study whether new language and a new lesson plan should be drafted to replace what the board cut out.
A version of this article appeared in the February 22, 2006 edition of Education Week as Ohio Removes Anti-Evolution Language