Topeka Kansas has the nation's worst science standards for public schools, a national education group says, condemning the state for rewriting its definition of science and treating evolution as a flawed theory.
The "F" grade from the Thomas B. Fordham Institute came after the State Board of Education approved the new standards last month. The Washington-based institute said Kansas' treatment of evolution was "radically compromised."
"The effect transcends evolution, however," the institute said in a report released Wednesday. "It now makes a mockery of the very definition of science."
Supporters contend the new standards will expose students to valid criticisms of evolutionary theory and promote openness in the classroom. Helping the board draft the standards were advocates of intelligent design, a theory that says some features of the universe are best explained by an unspecified intelligent cause because they're orderly and complex.
Board Chairman Steve Abrams called the institute's assessment "fraudulent."
"All that indicates to me is that they want evolution taught as a dogma," said Abrams, an Arkansas City Republican.
The institute reviewed standards in all states except Iowa, which doesn't have statewide guidelines, and the District of Columbia. Seven states, led by California, received "A" grades, while 15, including Kansas, Oklahoma and Texas, flunked.
The new Kansas standards say the theory that all life had a common origin has been challenged in recent years by fossil evidence and molecular biology. They also describe "macroevolution" - the theory that changes in one species can evolve a new species - as controversial.
Neither statement reflects mainstream scientific views on evolution, prompting criticism from groups such as the American Association for the Advancement of Science.
Paul Gross, a former University of Virginia provost who led the institute's study, said calling macroevolution controversial essentially suggests it can't or hasn't happened.
"That statement is false," Gross said during a teleconference with reporters.
Previous standards were evolution-friendly and defined science as "the human activity of seeking natural explanations for what we observe in the world around us." The new definition avoids limiting explanations to natural ones.
"They said it's wrong to limit science to the discussion or study of natural processes," Gross said. "It's not just wrong but stupid."
Evolution in Kansas
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- U.S. District Court Ruling in Kitzmiller et al v. Dover Area School District (PDF)
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The institute described such changes as the result of a "relentless" promotion of intelligent design. Religious and political pressure have created a "disturbing and dangerous" trend toward watering down standards on evolution, it said.
"A number of states have resisted this madness in their science standards, but too many are fudging or obfuscating the entire basis on which biology rests," the institute said. "Kansas is the most notorious instance of this, but far from the only one."
The nonprofit institute researches education issues, advocates tougher academic standards and grades states on their standards. Its trustees include Rod Paige, formerly President Bush's education secretary.
Kansas uses its academic standards to develop tests for students that measure how well schools are teaching them. The first tests under the new science standards won't be given until spring 2008.
Decisions about what's taught in classrooms will remain with the state's 300 local school boards, but some educators worry the new standards will pressure instructors to teach less about evolution or introduce intelligent design concepts.
Abrams said only a few pages in the standards deal with evolution, making an "F" grade unwarranted even if someone objects to how the theory is treated. He called the institute's assessment "just incomprehensible."
But Steve Case, assistant director of the Center for Science Education at Kansas University, said the standards deserved their "F."
The institute said it had planned to give Kansas a "C," based on a draft of the standards from a committee of educators, led by Case. The board started with that proposal and added language from intelligent design advocates.
"It cuts across curriculum areas to the very heart what science is," Case said. "You can cut out the heart and not touch 95 percent of the body, but it's just as dead."
The institute also gave Kansas an "F" in 2000, following a state school board decision to delete most references to evolution in the science standards. Three new board members won election that year, and in 2001, the state returned to evolution-friendly standards.
However, elections in 2002 and 2004 changed the board's composition again, and a 6-4 majority supported the new standards.