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Archive for Saturday, August 7, 2004

Education board to review school science standards

Conservative majority to convene in January

August 7, 2004

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— In December, one month before conservatives are expected to regain control of the State Board of Education, a committee will present the board its first draft of proposed changes to the state's science standards.

That draft is expected to go back for revisions. That's typical. But the board that gets the second draft is likely to be much friendlier to the idea that creationism deserves a place alongside evolution in Kansas science classes.

That's a near certainty after the victory Tuesday by Kathy Martin of Clay Center over incumbent Bruce Wyatt of Salina, giving conservatives a 6-4 majority when the board convenes in January.

Martin, a retired science teacher, campaigned on her desire to see creationism taught alongside evolution.

"It will be coming right out of the chute," said board member Sue Gamble, a Shawnee Republican and part of the board's moderate bloc. "They have the votes.

"I'll have my objections, but the standards are going to change," she said.

History of struggle

Kansas revises science standards every three years. A 24-member committee has been working on new ones for several months, with the first draft due in December. Final approval is expected by summer 2005.

Alexa Pochowski, deputy education commissioner for learning services, said the science committee had members from all philosophical viewpoints spanning all content areas. Members were nominated by the board.

The struggle over science standards dates to 1999, when the board voted to de-emphasize evolution, leaving it up to individual school districts to decide how much students would learn about the origins of life.

Instead of standards with specific references requiring students to understand evolution in detail, the board favored standards with few references to the theory. Standards are used to develop statewide tests to measure how well students are learning.

The changes drew international attention. The board was ridiculed and accused of undermining science education. The standards soon became the biggest campaign issue in board races in 2000, which saw moderates, including Gamble and Wyatt, take control.

The newly elected board quickly revised the standards in 2001, restoring references to evolution, and the issue faded.

However, the 2002 elections created a 5-5 split on the board and renewed the ideological tensions.

Evidence based

Pochowski said students were supposed to be tested under revised science standards in the 2007-08 school year -- when the state is supposed to start testing on science annually, rather than every two years.

The committee is trying to clarify how teachers present science to students, Pochowski said. The standards must be based on evidence -- whether they're dealing with creationism, intelligent design or evolution -- while respecting separation of church and state, she said.

"It doesn't mean those theories aren't important. It's a matter of whether it should be the parents or the schools making those decisions," Pochowski said.

Intelligent design advocates say all theories, including evolution, should be examined critically.

John Calvert, Kansas manager of the Intelligent Design Network, said students should be taught that new discoveries bolstered intelligent design and debunked theories that life began only through physical and chemical laws and by chance.

Martin advocates teaching all theories, giving students enough information to draw their own conclusions.

Gamble said changing the science standards risked hurting not only education, but the state's business climate.

"How seriously do people take us when you're the butt of jokes on late night TV?" Gamble said.

If the standards adopted in 2005 include creationism or intelligent design -- as Gamble expects -- the issue could influence the 2006 elections.

And, as in 2001, the new board taking office in 2007 could reverse course again, which Gamble said only creates uncertainty in education.

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