Science

Retooled Texas Standards Raise Unease Among Science Groups

By Sean Cavanagh — April 07, 2009 4 min read
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Some scientific organizations remain uneasy about Texas’ new science standards, given their potential influence, even though long-standing language that says students should learn about the “strengths and weaknesses” of evolution has been stripped from the document.

Scientists, on the one hand, were heartened by the state school board’s decision late last month to remove that language.

For years, they had argued that the wording falsely suggested that scientific support for evolution is shaky—when in fact it is one of most heavily vetted theories in all of science. They also said it encouraged the insertion of religious beliefs into public school science lessons.

The previous version of the Texas science standards had been in place since 1998. The new document, given final approval March 27, is expected to guide curriculum and instruction for the next decade.

The document’s reach, moreover, will likely extend far beyond Texas. The state’s academic standards guide textbook content, and publishers tend to write textbooks for other states to conform with Texas’ expectations, because of that state’s large share of the market.

Instead of keeping the old language, the 15-member board voted 13-2 to insert phrasing that says students should:

“In all fields of science, analyze, evaluate, and critique scientific explanations by using empirical evidence, logical reasoning, and experimental and observational testing, including examining all sides of the scientific evidence of those scientific explanations so as to encourage critical thinking by the student.”

Free-Speech Argument

Board member Cynthia N. Dunbar said she was “ecstatic” about the new wording. She said it will not allow religion to be brought into discussions of evolution, but rather give teachers and students “academic freedom” to approach the topic critically. Similar free-speech arguments have been made in other states recently. (“Academic Freedom’ Used as Basis Of Bills to Question Evolution,” May 14, 2008.)

“We want pure science in the classroom,” Ms. Dunbar said in an interview, “but we do not want censorship in the classroom, and this document does not allow that.”

But Steven Newton, a public information project director at of the National Center for Science Education, an Oakland, Calif.-based organization that supports teaching evolution in public school science classes, said the document’s call for students to examine “all sides of scientific evidence” is problematic.

Supporters of “intelligent design,” he noted, have claimed that scientific evidence supports their view—an assertion rejected by the vast majority of scientists.

Intelligent design holds that some features of living things show signs of having been shaped by an unnamed force or creator.

The Texas board narrowly rejected two controversial amendments, which had called for students to weigh the “sufficiency or insufficiency” of natural selection and common ancestry.

Those proposals were staunchly opposed by scientists, who pointed out that natural selection and common ancestry are widely supported, and crucial, pieces of evolutionary theory and central to students’ understanding.

However, one of the alternative phrases approved by the board—that students should “analyze and evaluate scientific explanations concerning the complexity of the cell"—also disappointed some science advocates.

To Mr. Newton, that phrasing sounds as if it could encourage discussions of intelligent design. Supporters of design have suggested that the complex features of the cell show signs of having been crafted intelligently, rather than having come about through evolution.

“That’s a very worrisome thing,” Mr. Newton said of the language.

But Ms. Dunbar, the state board member, disputed that assertion. The phrasing is simply meant to emphasize the importance of cellular biology and to foster a “scientific” exploration of the subject, she said.

Misleading Language?

Another amendment approved by the board requires students to “analyze and evaluate a variety of fossil types, such as transitional fossils, proposed transitional fossils, fossil lineages, and significant fossil deposits with regard to their appearance, completeness, and alignment with scientific explanations in light of this fossil data.”

Francis Q. Eberle, the executive director of the National Science Teachers Association, a professional organization based in Arlington, Va., said that language, particularly the wording about “proposed” fossils, is unscientific and misleading.

It is “an attempt to interject subjectivity and belief systems into a major unifying theme of science by isolating the concept out of context of the other evidence,” Mr. Eberle said in an e-mail. “Hence, this is no longer science, but something else.”

Texas officials are expected to consider new textbooks for adoption in 2011. Ms. Dunbar said she would expect publishers to follow the newly revised standards.

“We gave a very clear direction,” the Texas board member said.

Mr. Eberle, whose organization represents 55,000 teachers, said he would like publishers to be given enough leeway to avoid language that could lead educators astray.

“My hope would be that textbooks would publish science and not wander into other areas,” Mr. Eberle said in an interview.

The academic standards have the potential to be confusing, he added, and if texts mimic the standards language, “it’s a real setback for students.”

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A version of this article appeared in the April 08, 2009 edition of Education Week as Retooled Texas Standards Raise Unease Among Science Groups

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