Standards

Reporter’s Notebook

November 13, 2002 4 min read
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Evolution Standards and Practice Don’t Mesh

Ohio officials are debating how to treat evolution in the state’s new science standards, but one researcher suggests that the outcome of the debate will have little effect on classroom practice there.

Based on what he’s found elsewhere, Randy Moore, a professor of biology at the University of Minnesota-Twin Cities, says that biology teachers are going to teach what they believe, regardless of the state standards. In addition, as many as 15 percent of them may include in their classes creationism or other alternatives to evolution that scientists generally agree are not supported by evidence.

“There is no relationship between the quality of the standards and what happens in the classroom,” Mr. Moore told a standing-room-only session at the National Association of Biology Teachers conference here.

Mr. Moore based his conclusions on an analysis of various statewide polls of biology teachers’ beliefs and teaching practices, as well as his own interviews of 160 biology teachers.

A survey of biology teachers in Pennsylvania—a state lauded by scientists for the accuracy and depth of evolution in its standards—revealed that about 33 percent of those teachers “do not believe that evolution is central to biology,” Mr. Moore said.

In Louisiana, which has standards that scientists regard as providing an adequate treatment of evolution, almost 30 percent of teachers want to discuss creationism in their science classes, and about half that group actually teaches about the biblical story on the origins of life.

What’s more, 23 percent of Louisiana teachers “put little or no emphasis on evolution,” Mr. Moore said.

Other surveys show “a significant percentage” of teachers who want to teach creationism, and many who do, he said.

Based on his research, Mr. Moore estimates that 20 percent to 40 percent of biology teachers believe creationism is an alternative to teaching about evolution. Between 10 percent and 15 percent of the total “explicitly include creationism in their classes,” he said.

Evolution is such an important theory in biology that a teacher who ignores it is analogous to a chemistry teacher who rejects the periodic table of the elements, Mr. Moore argued.

The Ohio committee writing new science standards proposes that teachers “describe how scientists continue to investigate and critically analyze aspects of evolutionary theory.” (“Draft Ohio Standards Allow Debate on Evolution,” Oct. 23, 2002.)

The state board is scheduled to vote on the standards next month.

With Ohio serving as the current hotbed in the evolution debate, the sessions on that topic tended to draw the biggest crowds at the Oct. 30-Nov. 2 event here.

At one session, a molecular biologist noted that teachers can point to convincing evidence that supports evolution’s central tenet that today’s variety of species evolved from a common ancestor more than 2 billion years ago.

For example, the DNA that first appeared in bacteria about 21/2 billion years ago has the same structure as DNA in humans and other animals today, according to Jnanendra K. Bhattacharjee, a professor of microbiology at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio.

“There has not been an iota of change,” Mr. Bhattacharjee said.

Moreover, the cells of bacteria and all other animals are composed of the same six elements—carbon, hydrogen, oxygen, nitrogen, phosphorus, and sulphur—supporting the theory that all organisms have a common ancestor.

“Teachers should feel confident ... in teaching evolution with the molecular evidence,” Mr. Bhattacharjee said.

The national committee responsible for the curriculum and test questions for Advanced Placement biology is recommending that more time be allotted to open-response items and less to multiple-choice.

The recommendations of the six-member panel, which is made up of three high school teachers and three academics, follow criticism of the College Board’s popular honors courses. In a report last winter, the National Research Council contended that AP mathematics and science courses had become akin to test-preparation seminars, rather than in- depth, enriching experiences. (“Scholars Critique Advanced Classes in Math, Science,” Feb. 20, 2002.)

Beth D. Nichols, an examiner in the science-assessment division at the Educational Testing Service, said statisticians at the Princeton, N.J., company that designs the test say 20 of the 120 multiple-choice items could be dropped without harming the test’s validity.

As envisioned by the committee, students could have the 10 minutes saved in that part of the exam to think about how they’re going to answer the four open-response questions, though they would not be able to write in their test booklets during that time.

The NRC is also advising the New York City-based College Board about changes to AP curricula and tests.

Meanwhile, the AP Biology Development Committee is seeking advice from teachers on ways to improve the program. Visit apcentral.collegeboard.com on the Web for more information.

Ms. Nichols said she doubted that schools would see any major changes in the biology program before 2005.

—David J. Hoff & Karen Diegmueller

A version of this article appeared in the November 13, 2002 edition of Education Week as Reporter’s Notebook

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