Science

Ohio State Board Removes Language In Standards Questioning Evolution

By Sean Cavanagh — February 15, 2006 4 min read
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In the second major blow in as many months to the forces seeking to subject evolution to greater skepticism and scrutiny in science classrooms, the Ohio state board of education has voted to strip language from its academic standards that encourages students to “critically analyze” the established biological theory.

The board decided in an 11-4 vote on Feb. 14 to revise Ohio’s academic content standards to delete that wording, which was the subject of heated debate when it was added to the influential document in 2002.

“This was a win for science, a win for students, and a win for the state of Ohio,” said board member Martha W. Wise, who led the campaign to remove the language critical of evolution.

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As part of the same action, the board chose to do away with a state-approved lesson plan for teachers that critics said falsely suggested that mainstream scientists harbored doubts about the theory of evolution and promoted debates about aspects of evolution where no legitimate questions exist.

The Ohio vote comes less than two months after a federal judge in Pennsylvania, John E. Jones III, issued a widely scrutinized ruling declaring that a concept that has gained popularity among evolution’s critics—"intelligent design"—is religion, not science. Intelligent design is the belief that an unnamed force has guided various aspects of life’s development. Judge Jones’ sweeping, 139-page ruling, issued Dec. 20, concluded that the design concept does not hold up under scientific scrutiny, unlike the theory of evolution, which was backed by years of research in biology, chemistry, geology, and other fields.

Although that ruling only has legal standing in the federal district where it was issued, Ms. Wise said it had a “major impact” in shaping her thinking on the issue. The language that was in Ohio’s standards might have encouraged the teaching of intelligent design or creationism, the biblically based belief that God created all living things, she said.

Others were disappointed in the Ohio board’s action. In a statement, the Seattle-based Discovery Institute, which supports the teaching of intelligent design, called the vote a “gag order on science, a dogmatic approach to education that restricts students from learning about evolution.”

‘Critically Analyze’ Language Removed

A Republican and self-described creationist, Ms. Wise said that even though Ohio’s standards do not specifically promote intelligent design, she and fellow board members worried that the standards would not withstand legal scrutiny if challenged in court.

“It could have cost the state of Ohio millions of dollars,” Ms. Wise said.

Ohio, like Kansas, has been a major player in the ongoing furor over how to teach evolution in public school science classrooms. The critical analysis language used in its 307-page standards document is often cited by those who call for injecting more skepticism into lessons about the theory, pioneered most famously by British naturalist Charles Darwin.

The Ohio board’s action removes from the standards a statement about what its students should know. The statement says 10th graders should be able to “describe how scientists continue to investigate and critically analyze aspects of evolutionary theory.”

The state board’s decision comes as controversies over how to teach about evolutionary theory continue to emerge in states and school districts across the country. Some of evolution’s strongest critics suggest that public school science teachers should be allowed to discuss what they see as alternatives to evolution, such as intelligent design, a belief rejected by the vast majority of scientists, who say it relies on nonscientific and religious principles. The scientific community has instead consistently backed the theory of evolution, which holds that humans and other living things have developed through natural selection and random mutation.

Standards Content Debate

Ohio’s academic content standards for science were approved four years ago after a highly charged debate. Board members considered but eventually decided not to include language introducing intelligent design. In fact, the language in the standards specifically states that it “does not mandate the teaching or testing of intelligent design.”

In Ohio, as in most states, academic standards form the basis for questions students face on mandatory state tests. Last November, an Education Week analysis found that state standards vary greatly on how thoroughly they cover the topic of evolution, and in some cases, skip several core concepts. Overall, Ohio’s standards scored well in Education Week‘s review, covering many evolutionary topics thoroughly and citing respected national scientific documents—published by the American Association for the Advancement of Science and the congressionally chartered National Research Council—as blueprints for that document.

Education Week also found that statewide tests are equally uneven in how much they require students to know about evolution, with some asking no questions about the theory and others asking more than a dozen about it.

Ohio officials told Education Week last year that their state’s 38-question state high school science test, administered in spring 2005, included no questions that specifically mentioned evolution or referred to the topic generally. State officials explained that such an omission was not unusual, because items on the test are randomly drawn from a bank of questions based on the standards.

J.C. Benton, a spokesman for the Ohio education department, said it is unclear whether any items on the spring 2006 version of the science test refer to the critical analysis of evolution that was deleted from the standards. If there are any such questions, he said, the state would inform the company that scores the tests not to count those items. Science is one of five subjects that Ohio students are required to pass to receive a high school diploma.

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