Texas Board of Education revises science standards, adopts “compromise-language” on evolution

AUSTIN—The Texas State Board of Education (SBOE) approved streamlined Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills (TEKS) science standards for grades K-12 at its April 21 meeting, a move that placated both conservative and progressive constituencies concerned with the teaching of evolution in Texas public schools.

“It’s pretty interesting that people on both sides of the issue like the revised standards,” Barbara Cargill of The Woodlands, SBOE member for District 8 and former board chair, told the TEXAN.

In the second of five scheduled meetings this year, the 15-member elected board adopted “compromise-language on two high-profile standards,” after considering comments from teachers and a variety of speakers, the Texas Education Agency (TEA) posted on its website.

Changes to TEKS biology standards (4)(A) concerning cellular complexity and (6)(A) concerning DNA and scientific theories of its origin occasioned the compromise.

Instead of “evaluating” scientific theories, Texas students must now “compare and contrast” theories regarding cellular complexity. Rather than “evaluating” scientific explanations for the origin of DNA, students now must “examine” them.

Scientific explanations include “theories and hypotheses,” Cargill said, adding that the 2009 requirement that students examine “all sides” of scientific arguments was found “confusing” and dropped from TEKS standards.

The new “compromise” language addresses “both the need to streamline content while encouraging critical thinking by students,” SBOE chair Donna Bahorich said in a statement cited by TEA.

Streamlined standards go into effect in the 2018-19 school year.

For proponents of evolution, the changes signaled victory. The Texas Freedom Network posted on Twitter: “SBOE votes & for the 1st time in 30 years, standards are free of junk science designed to cast doubt on evolution. No, for real!”

The Austin Chronicle reported that Southern Methodist University evolutionary anthropologist Ron Wetherington, a member of the SBOE’s science review committee tasked with recommending changes, praised the deletion of the term “evaluate,” which he deemed a “dog whistle” enabling creationist agendas.

The Houston Press hailed the changed language as a sign of “real progress,” since students must no longer “evaluate evolution and creationism” but “compare and contrast” them, ending years of controversy by allowing students to “learn high school biology without being required to challenge evolution.”

Nonetheless, the terms “analyze, evaluate, and critique” have not gone away.

The streamlined TEKS biology process standard (3)(A) requires students in all fields of science to “analyze, evaluate, and critique scientific explanations by using empirical evidence, logical reasoning, and experimental and observational testing, so as to encourage critical thinking by the student.”

Sarah Chaffee of the Seattle-based Discovery Institute discussed the SBOE changes in an April 26 article posted on evolutionnews.org, pointing out that the SBOE kept requirements emphasizing “critical inquiry on such topics as the origin of DNA—life’s code—the intricacies of the cell, natural selection, and other subjects relating to biodiversity and evolution.”

Furthermore, TEKS biology standard (7)(B) calls for students to consider extra-evolutionary theory: “Examine scientific explanations of abrupt appearance and stasis in the fossil record.”

Claiming such concepts were “developmentally inappropriate” for ninth graders, the biology review panel initially recommended deleting the subjects of stasis, sudden appearance, cell complexity, and origin of life from the standards entirely, Cargill said, adding that SBOE reinserted these concepts following input from teachers, the public, and scientists.

The hotly-contested “analyze and evaluate” phrase was also retained in TEKS standards dealing with natural selection and common ancestry, Chaffee and Cargill confirmed.

Noting that many media outlets have given “erroneous information about the revised standards,” Cargill explained in a written statement that the “streamlined TEKS in biology continue to call for critical thinking in the study of theories such as evolution.”

The use of the word “examine” is meant to encourage students to “take a deeper look at scientific evidence and to analyze, evaluate and critique theories, whether that theory is evolution or any other theory,” Cargill stated.

Before the April vote, the SBOE heard from concerned Texas parents, educators, scholars and scientists.

The science review committee included fellows from the Discovery Institute’s Center for Science and Culture as well as teachers, university professors and evolutionary biologists.

Despite much ado from proponents of evolution, the words “creation theory” and “intelligent design” do not appear in TEKS standards.

Even the Discovery Institute’s science education policy calls for a “common ground approach” for public school science curriculums emphasizing the “strengths and weaknesses of neo-Darwinian and chemical evolutionary theories” rather than the teaching of alternative theories such as intelligent design, Chaffee stated.

“Science should be open to close scrutiny and debate, no matter where the evidence leads,” Cargill argued. “Only then can we hope that our students will become great thinkers.”

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