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Freethought Today · Vol. 23 No. 1 January/February 2006

Published by the Freedom From Religion Foundation, Inc.

Good, Bad, and Lots of Indifferent: The State of State K-12 Science Standards and the Fate of U.S.: Lawrence S. Lerner

By Lawrence S. Lerner

Fifteen states flunked (F), and Kansas stands alone (F-).

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Lawrence S. Lerner

Performance standards for schoolchildren are nothing new. For many years some states, at least, have published these "laundry lists" of what students should know in every subject at every grade level. Standards have many important applications. They are used as guidelines by curriculum developers, by textbook publishers, and by examination writers, among other things. In 1997, when I was first asked by the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation to evaluate the science standards of every state that had them, I surveyed 36 documents--a pretty dull but (I hope) useful task.

When I did a second review in 2000, the number of documents had increased to 46. As in 1997, far too many were mediocre to bad. There were several general reasons for this poor quality, and more often than not a poor standards document stumbled on more than one count. But one common failing of poor standards was bad, timid, hypocritical, or absent treatment of biological evolution. Quite often, the evolution of the earth and the universe suffered as well. With this in mind, the Fordham Foundation commissioned me to do a study focused on the treatment of evolution in K-12 science standards, and this was published later in 2000.

Since then, there has been a surge of public interest in accountability and evaluation in public education. In particular, the federal No Child Left Behind Act mandates statewide testing of all students. Up until now, the testing has been limited to proficiency in language arts and mathematics, but beginning in 2007, science will be tested as well, ordinarily at two or three points in a student's career from kindergarten through high school.

In response to all this activity, the Fordham Foundation commissioned a new review in 2005. By this time, every state but Iowa (plus the District of Columbia) had published standards, and the tendency was toward longer documents. The task had become so large that it was undertaken by a six-member team of scientists, science teachers, and a philosopher of science. Each team member surveyed all the standards but concentrated on his or her specialty. Our report was published in December. Although the evaluations were based on the overall quality of the standards documents, experience dictated that we devote special attention to the treatment of evolution.

As in the earlier reports, we used a set of criteria such as clarity, organization, sound content, rigor, and steady development of subject matter as the student matures. We assigned numerical scores for each criterion and used the total scores to assign letter grades A through F. The good news is that 19 states, where more than half of American students go to school, have excellent or good (A or B) science standards. Not so happily, 16 states scored mediocre to bad (C or D) and 15 states flunked (F). Kansas is a special case, as you will see below.

Curiously, there was a lot of churning between 2000 and 2005. Some states improved and some declined. Overall there was little change. Of the 45 states (plus the District of Columbia) that were evaluated in 2000, 12 improved, 19 declined, and 15 did not change. This is bad news, since we might expect that the availability of good state standards would make it easy for those states rewriting poor standards to make improvements. The overall grades for all 49 states and the District of Columbia are shown in Table 1. (Iowa does not have statewide standards.)

Table 1: Overall Grades, 2005
Grades States
A CA, IN, MA, NM, NY, SC, VA
B AZ, CO, GA, IL, LA, MD, MN, NJ, NC, OH, TN, WV
C CT, DE, DC, MO, PA, RI, UT, VT, WA
D AR, KY, ME, MI, NV, ND, SD
F AL, AK, FL, HI, ID, KS, MS, MT, NE, NH, OK, OR, TX, WI, WY

Turning specifically to the treatment of evolution, we saw pretty much the same thing. The number of states earning A or B declined from 24 to 20; C grades held steady at 7, Ds rose from 6 to 10, and Fs remained at 12. Kansas, having fluctuated wildly in the interim between reports, retained the dubious distinction of "not even failed"--F-minus. (See Table 2.)

Table 2: 2005 Grades on Treatment of Evolution
Grade States
A or B CA, DE, GA, IL, IN, MD, MA, MI, MO, NJ, NM, NY, OH, PA, RI, SC, TN, VT, VA, WA
C AZ, DC, LA, MN, NV, OR, UT
D CO, HI, KY, NE, NC, ND, SD, TX, WV, WY
F AL, AK, AR, CT, FL, ID, ME, MS, MT, NH, OK, WI
F-minus KS

It's interesting to note that, although there is a disproportionate concentration of ill-treatment of evolution in the Bible Belt, geography is neither a necessary nor a sufficient condition for such treatment. Georgia and South Carolina, for instance, treated evolution very well, while New Hampshire and Wisconsin did not. You can see the correlation between quality of treatment of science overall and of evolution in particular by comparing Figure 1 with Figure 2. In making this comparison, bear in mind the fact that Figure 1 shows the good-to-bad gradient as dark-to-light shading while Figure 2 shows the gradient as light-to-dark shading.

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Figure 1


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Figure 2

Just as in the overall evaluations, poor treatment of evolution can have several causes. In some cases, the issue is simply one of competence; the writers either did not or could not present evolution (or the life sciences in general) in a cogent, accurate manner. But more often, we see design at work (in more than one sense of the word!). As has long been the case, there is a deliberate effort to ignore, minimize, or distort the central organizing principle of the life sciences.

As creationism has evolved under the selective pressure of a series of court decisions, creationist leadership has shifted from the traditional young-earth creationists (YECs) to the intelligent-design creationists (IDCs.) This shift, which had already begun by 2000, has now reached its culmination, as the recent case in Dover, Penn., dramatically demonstrated. The IDCs have introduced two main new tactics into the creationist cause. First, because the courts have held that explanation of scientific observations by reference to God, or a supernatural cause, or a specific religious text, brands a viewpoint as religious rather than scientific, the IDCs have employed the euphemism "Intelligent Designer"--a being or entity who (or that) may or may not be divine but might also be a little green man from Antares. (Of course, they make no such disclaimers when they are speaking to sympathetic church audiences.) Second, the IDCs insist that the scientific methodology which has been employed so successfully since the time of Galileo--the explication of natural phenomena in terms of natural causes and natural laws--is excessively narrow. They wish to redefine science so that supernatural events (that is, "miracles") become part of its normal subject matter.

But although the IDCs are more sophisticated than, and have proceeded more subtly than, the YECs, this is a distinction without a difference so far as creationist pressure on state science standards is concerned. The Dover school board's injection of creationism into the school curriculum followed IDC lines. A group of parents sued, and the board obtained the support of a far-right Catholic legal foundation. The suit went to trial in federal district court.

But as Judge John Jones III pointed out so clearly in his decision of December 10, 2005, the intent of IDC is no different from that of YEC: to inject a narrow form of Christianity into public school science classes. Or, failing that, the creationist aim is to cast doubt on the validity of evolution--and indeed, of the scientific method itself--in the hope that students who doubt the scientific approach will accept the authority of their theology in its place. (This is the reason for the creationist claim that one can either accept evolution or be a Christian, but not both.)

Even before Judge Jones issued his verdict, the voters of Dover had reached the end of their patience. All eight of the creationists standing for election to the school board were defeated, and the new board has a large pro-science majority. Needless to say, they do not plan to appeal the verdict. Nevertheless, the school district (which is not wealthy) will have to pony up the million dollars or so in legal costs to the successful plaintiffs.

Mississippi follows a "what they don't know won't hurt them" or "ignorance is bliss" strategy. The standards simply avoid the use of the dreaded E-word, and present only bits and pieces of the underlying evidence. (One may draw a parallel between this approach and the ubiquitous "abstinence-only" sex education programs adopted by Mississippi, among many other states.)

Alabama, more aggressively, begins its science standards document with the notorious "Alabama disclaimer," which goes as follows:

The theory of evolution by natural selection, a theory included in this document, states that natural selection provides the basis for the modern scientific explanation for the diversity of living things. Since natural selection has been observed to play a role in influencing small changes in a population, it is assumed, based on the study of artifacts, that it produces large changes, even though this has not been directly observed. Because of its importance and implications, students should understand the nature of evolutionary theories. They should learn to make distinctions among the multiple meanings of evolution, to distinguish between observations and assumptions used to draw conclusions, and to wrestle with the unanswered questions and unresolved problems still faced by evolutionary theory.

The Fordham report cuts to the heart of this disclaimer:

Although this is focused on evolution, and it paraphrases the "critiques" of evolutionary biology currently advanced by "intelligent design" creationism, it quite effectively derogates every branch of science. (There are, for example, many basic, "unanswered questions" about the fundamental forces of nature. Do we, for this reason, warn students to be suspicious of, or to "wrestle with," the "unresolved problems" of physics?) The Alabama preface sows confusion and offers a distorted view of what science is and how it is pursued. The quoted paragraph is preceded by mention of Copernicus, Newton, and Einstein, all physicists or astronomers; it then launches into an attack by misdirection on (evolutionary) biology.

Other school systems have mimicked Alabama. Cobb County, Ga., has printed a similar disclaimer on stickers that have been inserted in every relevant textbook used in its schools. The matter is now in litigation; a federal district court ordered the county to remove the stickers but an appeal is now in process. The Oklahoma state school board expressed an interest in the disclaimer but was dissuaded from adopting it by its legal advisors. Several state legislatures have considered bills requiring the use of a similar sticker, but none of these bills has become law as yet.

Kansas stands alone. Historically, Kansas has often been a place torn between two opposing parties. Before the Civil War, "Bleeding Kansas" was the venue of violent confrontations between antislavery and pro-slavery forces. It has long been the home of freethinkers (among them L. Frank Baum of Oz fame and E. Haldeman-Julius, the publisher of the Little Blue Books) and of innumerable far-out churches ranging from rural Holy Rollers to suburban megachurches.

In this environment, it is perhaps not surprising that, in 1998, a creationist majority took control of the autonomous Kansas Board of Education. They promptly took a workable set of science standards and edited out all references not only to evolution but also to any subject connected to the age of the earth or the universe. This included such basic topics as radioactive decay (which can be used to date objects that predate biblical events) and the Big Bang (which took place long before Noah's Flood). This action led to the F-minus the Kansas science standards earned in 2000.

Needless to say, Kansans had to endure a lot of ridicule, often referring to the smoke-and-mirrors machinations of the Wizard of Oz. Worse, a number of high-tech companies that had planned to establish offices in Kansas had second thoughts. The furor led, in 2000, to the voting out of creationist board members and the reestablishment of a science-friendly majority. The new board reinstated the original standards (with slight modifications) soon enough that the creationist efforts had no impact on science teaching.

In the following two elections, however, a creationist majority was reestablished. Taking a somewhat more subtle tack than their predecessors, they adopted an IDC approach, which stands today and earned a brand-new F-minus. Many Kansans, including the governor, the members of the universities, and the great majority of the science teachers, are dismayed. It remains to be seen what will happen in the 2006 elections.

Good standards are only a first step toward quality education. It's a long way, after all, from the Department of Education in a state capital to the small rural schoolhouse in the mountains or the plains. Indeed, there is evidence that many states have used their standards as a basis for writing undemanding exams, at least in language arts and mathematics. And many other matters need to be considered, among them finding and using quality textbooks, making sure teachers have adequate preparation in their subjects, and finding enough money to attract quality personnel in every aspect of public education. But if the standards are poor, it is difficult to assure quality education in all the schools of a state and not just the schools in affluent neighborhoods where well-educated parents raise well-prepared children.

References

Gross, Paul R., Ursula Goodenough, Susan Haack, Lawrence S. Lerner, Martha Schwartz, and Richard Schwartz, The State of State Standards 2005, The Thomas B. Fordham Institute, Washington, D.C., available online at http://www.edexcellence.net.

Jones, John III, Kitzmiller et al. v. Dover, Case 4:04-cv-02688-JEJ Document 342 Filed 12/20/2005, available inter alia at http://www.sciohost.org/ncse/kvd/kitzmiller_decision_20051220.pdf.

Lerner, L. S., in The State of State Standards 2000, The Thomas B. Fordham Foundation, Washington, D.C., available online at http://www.edexcellence.net.

____, State Science Standards: An Appraisal of Science Standards In 36 States, ibid., 1998.

____, Good Science, Bad Science: Teaching Evolution In The States, ibid., 2000.

Foundation member Lawrence S. Lerner was educated at Stuyvesant High School in New York and at the University of Chicago. Following a seven-year stint as a research physicist in the aerospace and electronics industries, he settled into a 30-year professorship at California State University, Long Beach, where he was particularly active in encouraging young women to enter careers in the sciences and engineering. For some time, he directed the University's General Honors Program.

Since 1999, he has been Professor Emeritus in the College of Natural Sciences and Mathematics. He has worked in condensed-matter physics, the history of science, and, for the past two decades or so, as a consultant on curricular matters in K-12 science education. In the last of these capacities he found himself perforce confronted with the various religious and political pressure groups that want to substitute their particular narrow religious views for real science in public-school education. With the rise of the Religious Right, the battle for real science has become a lot more visible; fortunately, many more members of the science community have become involved.

Lerner is the author of two university-level physics textbooks, a translation of Giordano Bruno's Copernicus-based philosophical work The Ash Wednesday Supper, and several hundred journal articles, book chapters, and the like. He was a major author of the 1990 California Science Framework. He lives with his wife, a retired chemist, and two low-keyed Newfoundland dogs in the mountains south of San Francisco. He is very fond of good conversation, good music, good food, and good wine.