Why Science Standards are Important to a Strong Science Curriculum and How States Measure Up

Louise S. Mead and Anton Mates
National Center for Science Education
August, 2009

Nationally, state science standards regarding the teaching of evolution in our schools have improved a little since 2000 when the Fordham Foundation last surveyed the landscape. According to this latest survey from the National Center for Science Education (see here), 40 states and territories do an adequate job, up from 31. The survey shows that science standards tend to cover evolution more extensively than they did a decade ago, and that the average quality of the treatment has increased.

Ironically, however, creationist language is also becoming more common in state standards. And, there are still outliers such as Texas, Louisiana and nine other states that were marked unsatisfactory with an “F.” Texas is cited as a particularly troubling example. Amendments to the Texas Educational Knowledge and Skills document now require the presentation of creationist claims about the complexity of the cell, the completeness of the fossil record, and the age of the universe. Ohio and other states – notably Kansas – went this route a few years ago and, fortunately, veered back towards the tenets of science.

Ohio grades a “B” in this new report. The state’s science standards are now being reviewed again and it appears evolution will be treated in an educationally valid and scientific manner. Kansas gets an “A” this time around. On the other hand, Oklahoma’s standards don’t even mention the word evolution. Some states wiggle. Missouri’s standards ignore human evolution, which is kind of a fallback position for anti-evolution types who, when faced with scientific reality, grudgingly argue that it may work for microbes and monkeys but not for us.

There are still lots of people of influence who believe the Earth is about 16,000 years old or, that at least the idea needs to be seriously discussed. Mead and Mates believe any discussion of alternatives to evolution that are not based on science automatically marginalizes evolution teaching and that, obviously, is what the creationist and intelligent design clique have in mind. These people remain influential. Their opposition, for example, may have discouraged any American film distributor from carrying the new film of Darwin’s life (see here). I may have to go to Canada to see it. I mean, where’s the controversy over unending sequels to “Halloween”?

Unfortunately, however, even if educational sanity and scientific accuracy are reflected in state science standards in Ohio and elsewhere, there’s no guarantee the standards will be carried out in classrooms. This could be simply because a teacher doesn’t want to teach them or because the teacher is incapable of adequately teaching science because he or she lacks the knowledge and training to do so. The dire need for competent math and science teachers in classrooms across the nation can short circuit the best of plans. At least rigorous standards ensure there is a resource for less-well-prepared teachers. Read the report here.

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