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Continued progress in South Carolina?

At its January 8, 2014, meeting, the South Carolina state board of education voted to adopt a new set of science standards, rejecting two different proposals that would have compromised the treatment of evolution in the process. As NCSE previously reported, the standards under consideration are a revision of the standards adopted in 2005, which the Fordham Institute graded (PDF) as A- in its 2012 evaluation of state science standards. According to the Fordham study, "at the high school level, evolution is treated excellently and the support documents are exemplary."

At the board's meeting in October 2013, there was resistance to adopting the standards, including from members of the board itself: Michael Brenan enquired whether the concept of "irreducible complexity" was included in the standards, for example, and Danny Varat suggested that a standard about climate change was "leading toward a predetermined conclusion." Nevertheless, the board gave its initial approval to the standards, which then went to the state's Education Oversight Committee for its review.

On December 9, 2013, the EOC decided to return the standards to the state board of education with a list of recommended changes. Of particular interest in the EOC's list: the standard (H.B.5A.2) calling for students to "[c]onstruct explanations of ways scientists use data from a variety of sources to investigate and critically analyze aspects of the theory of biological evolution" would be revised — "to improve clarity" — to call for students to "[u]se data from a variety of sources to investigate and critically analyze aspects of the theory of biological evolution."

The South Carolina Department of Education responded (PDF) by proposing that the standard instead be revised to call for students to "[e]xplain how scientists use data from a variety of sources to investigate and critically analyze aspects of the theory of biological evolution." Presumably reacting to the absence from the EOC's proposed revision of any reference to scientific practice, the department commented, "As evolution is a scientific theory, it is critical that students learn a scientific approach to data analysis."

The board sided with the department over the EOC, voting to adopt the standards with the department's version of H.B.5A.2. The board also considered a proposal by its member Neil Willis, seconded by Rhonda Edwards, to include language about "creation by design" in the standards. Explaining that he was concerned about schools teaching material that contradicted what parents taught at home, Willis said that he wanted to allow teachers to tell students that there were other theories. His proposal was rejected.

There was also a suggestion from South Carolinians for Science Education's Robert T. Dillon, a professor of biology at the College of Charleston, who took exception to the adverb "critically" in H.B.5A.2 and elsewhere. Dillon told a blogger for the Charleston Post and Courier (January 8, 2014) that the adverb is used only with reference to evolution and climate change: "They're trying to make evolution appear controversial, they're trying to make it somehow different." Dillon thus proposed, unsuccessfully, that "critically" be added to the other 129 clauses containing "analyze."

Dillon was nevertheless pleased by the board's vote; the Post and Courier reported that he "said the standards are — adverbs aside — rather exemplary." Following the board's vote, the standards again return to the EOC. The EOC was supposed to vote yes or no on the standards, with today's vote by the board final, but it is apparently claiming that it never took a vote. Accordingly, its Academic Standards and Assessment Subcommittee is expected to consider them again at its January 27, 2014, meeting, before the full EOC takes a vote in February 2014.