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State education board focuses again on teaching of evolution

Language challenging evolution was removed from high school biology standards because it seemed too difficult for students to analyze and evaluate, the state education board was told Wednesday.

State Board of Education Chair Barbara Cargill questions textbook publishers on the contents of their publications at a meeting in Austin on Monday, October 20, 2014.

An educator on a committee responsible for removing language challenging evolution from Texas science curriculum standards said Wednesday that it was not a political move.

Karyn Ard, biology teacher at Troup Independent School District, testified before the State Board of Education Wednesday, along with several other educators who had served on committees to streamline science standards.

Earlier this year, the board convened a 10-member committee of educators and district officials to edit the biology curriculum standards, also called TEKS, or Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills. The biology committee removed four passages that some board members say challenge evolutionary science.

The board will vote in April on whether to uphold removal of those passages.

Ard said Wednesday that the committee removed the passages because 14- and 15-year-olds are not prepared to analyze and evaluate evolution on a high level. But, she added, evolution is a theory and in principle should be challenged like any other theory.

In 2012, left-leaning education board watchdog Texas Freedom Network published a report singling out those four passages in the biology TEKS for challenging evolutionary theory. The report argued the passages "include concepts and buzzwords that originate in the intelligent design/creationism community, creating the possibility that scientifically inaccurate and possibly unconstitutional content could find its way into Texas science materials."

The committee decided to remove or edit those specific passages. One of the passages requires biology teachers to examine “all sides of scientific evidence of those scientific explanations, so as to encourage critical thinking by the student.” The 10-member committee struck that line from the biology standards, saying that “evidence does not have sides, only different perspectives on the interpretation of the evidence.”

But Ard said Wednesday that committee members had not seen the Texas Freedom Network report when discussing recommendations, and had not intended to stop students from questioning evolution.

“These changes were purely based on the fact that our kids cannot master those,” she said.

Asking students to analyze and evaluate the evidence of evolution is “overwhelming” for teachers and students, Ard said. Teachers do not have enough time to go into depth in the classroom, and students are not prepared to evaluate evolution.

“Are you concerned that if these TEKS are allowed to remain that you will cross the line in terms of creationism? If this particular paper talked in terms of those TEKS opening the door into teaching of creationism, that would be unfounded, don’t you agree?” board member Marty Rowley, R-Amarillo, asked.

Ard did agree. “It’s a theory. It should be questioned. Kids should be allowed to look at different theories,” she said. “We have Newton’s Law in physics. Kids still go out and they egg drop and everything.”

Board member Barbara Cargill, R-Woodlands, said students are energized when they debate major scientific theories such as evolution. “We’re all looking at the same data, just interpreted different ways,” she said. “That’s part of what makes science so rich.”

She encouraged the committee to re-insert a passage asking students to “analyze and evaluate scientific explanations concerning any data of sudden appearance, stasis, and sequential nature of groups in the fossil record.” Committee members wrote in their recommendations that they had struck that passage because there is “not enough time for students to master concept. Cognitively inappropriate for 9th grade students.”

The board voting on the standards in April will be different than the one that heard testimony Wednesday. Two new members, Democrat Georgina Perez in District 1 and Republican Keven Ellis in District 9, will replace outgoing members Martha Dominguez, D-El Paso, and Thomas Ratliff, R-Mount Pleasant.

Ellis has repeatedly declined to comment specifically on the matter, before and after he won his seat on the board. "We'll look at that as that comes up," Ellis told the Tribune last Wednesday. "There's a lot on the plate ... I don't want to make determinations now of what the science needs to be." 

It remains to be seen whether Ellis will change the political makeup of the board, which has five Democrats and 10 Republicans, split between moderate and far right.

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Public education State Board of Education Texas Education Agency