The state of state science standards 2005


The Thomas B. Fordham Institute's report The State of State Science Standards -- the first comprehensive review of state science standards since 2000 -- was released on December 7, 2005. According to the Fordham Institute's description:

Science education in America is under attack, with "discovery learning" on one flank and the Discovery Institute on the other. That's the core finding of our just-released comprehensive review of state science standards, the first since 2000. Written by pre-eminent biologist Paul R. Gross, The State of State Standards finds that even though the majority of states have reworked, or crafted from scratch, their science standards over the past five years, we're no better off now than before. That's the bad news. The good news is that many of the standards are easily fixed. More involvement by bench scientists, and better editing, could greatly improve what's out there. Plus, there are a number of excellent models to follow (California, Massachusetts, and South Carolina, for example). The public's anxiety about the future of its scientific prowess is palpable -- and reasonable. How serious are we in addressing their concerns? To find out, read the report.
Among the serious problems that plague state science standards, the review's executive summary notes, "A disturbing and dangerous trend over the past five years, in response to religious and political pressures, is the effort to water down the treatment of evolution." It proceeds to explain:
The attack on evolution is unabated, and Darwin's critics have evolved a more-subtle, more dangerous approach. A decade ago, the anti-evolution movement, which acquired a command post and funding source in the Discovery Institute of Seattle, Washington, argued vigorously for explicit teaching of the evidence for intelligent design -- for the role of external, conscious agency in the history of life on Earth. When examined by qualified scientists and mathematicians, however, that evidence turned out not to be evidence, and so it remains -- no evidence -- at the time of writing. The promoters of intelligent design creationism have perforce retreated to arguments that invoke the popular and conveniently vague educationist formula, "critical thinking." The claim now is that evidence against "Darwinism" exists, that curriculum-makers should include it as an exercise in critical thinking, and that "freedom of speech" or "fairness" requires that they do so. The hidden agenda is to introduce doubt -- any possible doubt -- about evolution at the critical early stage of introduction to the relevant science.
The summary emphasizes that the treatment of evolution education in state science standards is not noticeably worse than was discovered in a previous Fordham study, Lawrence S. Lerner's Good Science, Bad Science:
Still, even under relentless attack, defenders of the teaching of evolution are holding their ground. In fact, comparing this year's scores of how states are handling evolution with the scores assigned in 2000, when Dr. Lawrence Lerner did a similar survey for Fordham ..., we find that the teaching of evolution hasn't changed much. Twenty states earned a 'sound' grade this year for their treatment of evolution, down slightly from 24 in 2000. The number of states earning 'passing' grades held steady at 7, while those earning 'marginal' grades rose from 6 to 10. Failing grades (or worse, as in Kansas) held steady at 13.
Because of the prevalence of creationism, the study's authors added a grade (on a 0-3 scale) "specifically for the handling of evolution in the life sciences and the other historical sciences." They note that there are a variety of possible ways in which creationists might try to compromise the place of evolution in the standards:
One is to require disclaimers somewhere in the standards or in the curricular materials that flow from them, to the effect that evolution is "just a theory." The clear implication of this misuse of "theory" is that evolution may be, or is likely to be, false, and in any case has not been "proven." The other main technique is to insist in the standards that nothing in the documentation or in the classroom is intended to, or can, or will, have any effect upon anyone's conflicting beliefs. This is a conciliatory move, but it leads to the smart student's dangerous question: "Then why bother to learn it?"
And they also note that there are more practical -- and more subtle -- ways to accomplish the same effect:
One is simple: just ignore or ruthlessly scant the history of life on earth and avoid any discussion of descent and mechanisms. Set forth a few of the basics, even to the extent of mentioning the fossil record and some interpretation of it. But then simply avoid using the E-word or hide it somewhere in a mass of secondary verbiage. Some weasel words that don't mean the same thing, such as "change over time," may be substituted. Alternatively, however fully or scantily other biological and geological content is covered, the core science of evolution -- physical as well as biological -- can be passed over as though it were peripheral, or a curiosity.
Accordingly, they explain:
A standards document that gives evolutionary science appropriate weight, at least within biology, that introduces the main lines of evidence, including findings in the fossil record, genetics, molecular biology, and development, and that connects all this with Earth history, merits a "3." The above, but with some big gaps, gets a "2." "1" is a marginally acceptable treatment. If the treatment is useless, disguised, or absent, the grade is "0."
States receiving a grade of 3 for evolution: CA, DE, GA, IL, IN, KS, MD, MA, MI, MO, NJ, NM, NY, OH, PA, RI, SC, TN, VT, VA, WA
States receiving a grade of 2 for evolution: AZ, DC, LA, MN, NV, OR, UT
States receiving a grade of 1 for evolution: CO, HI, KY, NE, NC, ND, SD, TX, WV, WY
States receiving a grade of 0 for evolution: AL, AK, AR, CT, FL, ID, ME, MS, MT, NH, OK, WI
(Iowa has no state science standards.)

In some cases, the science standards that were examined for the study are not the ones now in effect. In particular, the Kansas standards, which would have received a grade of 3, have been revised by the antievolutionist majority on the board of education. Accordingly, a note added in proof reads, "Kansas has adopted standards whose treatment of evolutionary material has been radically compromised. The effect transcends evolution, however. It now makes a mockery of the very definition of science. The [overall] grade for Kansas is accordingly reduced [from C] to 'F.'" For evolution, the standards received a grade below 0 -- "Not even failed."

The State of State Science Standards was written by Paul R. Gross with Ursula Goodenough, Susan Haack, Lawrence S. Lerner, Martha Schwartz, and Richard Schwartz. NCSE congratulates them on their impressive accomplishment and salutes the Thomas B. Fordham Institute for commissioning such a comprehensive and rigorous study of state science standards.