Science

Science Groups Deny Kansas Access to Their Standards

By Mary Ann Zehr — September 29, 1999 4 min read
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Leave evolution out of state science standards, and you’ll have to go it alone in creating those standards.

Three national science groups have denied Kansas permission to use their standards documents because of the state’s evolution stand.

That’s the message that three national science organizations sent the Kansas board of education last week in response to the board’s recent vote to omit most references to evolution from its state academic standards.

The National Science Teachers Association, the National Research Council, and the American Association for the Advancement of Science released a statement saying they had denied copyright permission for the Kansas board to reprint sections of their national standards.The announcement reversed an earlier tentative decision to grant permission.

The change was necessary, the organizations said in a joint statement, because the revised Kansas standards approved by the board do not “embrace the vision and content” of national standards.

In a 6-4 vote last month, the Kansas board approved a document that deleted most references to evolution from academic standards that had been recommended by a committee of 27 science experts. Kansas districts do not have to follow the state standards and are free to continue teaching evolution, though the topic will not be included in new state tests. (“Kansas Evolution Controversy Gives Rise To National Debate,” Sept. 8, 1999.)

“It’s a transition from good science to bad science,” said Gerry Wheeler, the executive director of the Arlington, Va.- based NSTA. “They have taken one of the largest unifying principles in science, namely evolution, and devalued it.”

Mr. Wheeler said that even though the state’s standards are optional, he feared teachers would refrain from teaching about evolution under the circumstances.

While the NSTA wanted to make sure its words didn’t become part of the Kansas document, he added, its decision was meant more broadly to send a message to the public that the Kansas board was shortchanging students.

“We will speak out when we see children getting less than the best science possible,” Mr. Wheeler said.

Even though the federal government picked up a substantial part of the tab for the development of the voluntary national science standardsas well as those written for many other disciplinesofficials allowed the subject-matter groups to retain the copyrights.

But Washington required the subject-matter groups to give it full access to the standards. It was unclear late last week if that privilege was to be extended to state governments.

Rewording Planned

The decision by the science organizations came as no surprise to the Kansas board, according to its chairwoman, Linda Holloway.

In a brief written statement, she said that it simply means board members will have to reword the copyright portions of the standards.

Board member Steve E. Abrams agreed. “In the greater scheme of things,” he said in an interview, “it’s not a big deal. It will cause some rework.”

But others who have participated in the process of drafting science standards in Kansas expressed considerably more frustration.

“I think it is very much a big deal,” said Bill Wagnon, a professor of history at Washburn University in Topeka, who has been on the state board since 1997. He was one of the four members who voted against the revised standards.

“It took the original committee the better part of a year to get the standards written,” Mr. Wagnon said. “How Linda [Holloway] thinks they’re going to get done overnight puzzles me.”

While the board had hoped to have standards and assessments in place by 2001, he said he wondered now if that deadline would be met.

“It’s not going to be a simple matter to change what’s been taken from other documents, because there’s so much of it,” added Greg Schell, the science education consultant for the Kansas education department.

Kansas’ science-standards document runs 103 pages.

The standards particularly relied on the Benchmarks for Science Literacy, published by the AAAS, and the Pathways to the Science Standards, published by the NSTA, he said.

Complicating matters, said Steven B. Case, a former science teacher, is the fact that the members of the original writing committee, which included himself, are fed up with the whole process.

“It’s my opinion that [the board members] don’t have any interest in science standards,” he said. “Going through this exercise again would be pointless.”

‘An Open Sore’

Mr. Case said he was happy to see the national organizations stand up for what was good science, and he said the situation in Kansas was simply political. He blames the current mess on Mr. Abrams, who he claims is opposing evolution to try to revitalize a conservative social agenda among Kansas Republicans.

But Mr. Abrams said that he opposes the mention of evolution in state standards because it’s a controversial topic, and “the individual communities and parents should be the ones to make the decisions on how to teach controversial topics.”

Mr. Wagnon, on the other hand, said the board members’ decision had only undermined public confidence in its ability to set standards.

“I doubt we could get a group of science teachers in Kansas to come together and write new standards for us,” he said.

“This is an open sore that will irritate the public in Kansas about the quality of board leadership.”

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