Archive for Wednesday, January 10, 2007

New science standards up for vote next month

January 10, 2007


— The new moderate majority on the Kansas State Board of Education plans to vote next month on new science testing standards, moving more quickly than anticipated to dump anti-evolution guidelines that made the state an object of international ridicule.

The board planned a presentation Tuesday on a rival set of evolution-friendly standards drafted by a committee of educators. That would permit the board to adopt them at its next meeting, Feb. 13 and 14.

The existing standards, which treat evolution as a flawed theory and incorporate language favored by backers of intelligent design, were adopted in 2005, when a 6-4 majority of conservative Republicans controlled the board.

Last year's election left a coalition of Democrats and moderate Republicans with a 6-4 majority. Two new board members were sworn in Monday. The new majority took control Tuesday and reopened the evolution debate minutes later.

"Local districts deserve to have high-quality education standards from which to build their local curriculums," said board member Sue Gamble, a moderate Republican from Shawnee.

While Gamble and other board members have anticipated for months that they'll rewrite the standards, they said previously they'd wait several months while an alternative was developed. However, the committee of educators moved ahead in December, allowing a quicker vote.

During a public hearing Tuesday, board members also heard from Kansans who don't want them to tinker with the current standards, arguing that those standards encourage critical thinking by students and that evolution is flawed.

Judith Reinhold, a Leavenworth retiree, said that if students are taught that man descended from animals, "Why should we be surprised if they act like animals?"

A vote in February would be the fourth time in eight years that the standards have been rewritten.

The standards are used to develop tests that measure how well students are learning science. While they don't dictate what schools teach - those decisions are left to 296 local school boards - scientists worry any tilt toward intelligent design encourages changes in the classroom.

Charlotte McDonald, of Olathe, a science specialist in the Blue Valley school district, said educators want to teach good science but also are sensitive to social and political controversies.

"They need to feel they have permission to teach science," McDonald said. "They want to be backed up."

The existing standards define science so that it isn't specifically limited to the search for natural explanations of phenomena. That's likely to change in new standards.

Also, the current standards say evolutionary theory that all life had a common origin has been challenged by fossils and molecular biology. And, they say, there's controversy over whether changes over time in one species can lead to a new species.

Both statements echo intelligent design arguments, defying mainstream science - and aren't likely to be included in new standards.

Intelligent design says an intelligent cause is the best way to explain some complex and well-ordered features of the universe. Many scientists view it as creationism, repackaged to get around a 1987 U.S. Supreme Court ruling prohibiting its teaching as a government endorsement of specific religious doctrines.

But Kansas' standards have changed as the majority on its state school board has changed - becoming anti-evolution in 1999, evolution-friendly in 2001 and anti-evolution again in 2005.

Hearings by the board in May 2005 drew journalists from Canada, France, Great Britain and Japan. Later, Comedy Central's "The Daily Show" broadcast a four-part series titled, "Evolution Schmevolution."

"I guess if it were up to me, I would leave that in the hands of the science teachers and the experts in science," Hays superintendent Fred Kaufman said during a telephone interview.


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