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Board of Ed prepares to vote on evolution science standards

A day before voting on changes to science standards, the State Board of Education heard from a line of scientists urging removal of language they say challenges evolution — and a handful of those in opposition.

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The State Board of Education heard testimony Tuesday morning from members of the public who want to keep the current high school science standards — and from those who argue they are dumbing down Texas students.

The board is in the middle of deciding exactly how to streamline its science standards, and it put together a committee last July to make recommendations on how to do so. Among the most controversial recommendations the committee made were revisions to four high school standards that removed language many say questions evolutionary science.

Board members will discuss and vote on potential amendments to the standards Wednesday. They will take a final vote on the science standards in April.

Ray Bohlin, one of the teachers on the committee, said he disagreed with the others on whether to remove one of the controversial standards. He lost the vote 7-2. If that standard is deleted, he said, "Teachers are not required to include any scientific evidence that could be considered as challenging standard evolutionary theory. Evolution gets a free pass."

A science teacher at a private Christian school in Frisco, Bohlin said he never teaches creationism in the classroom, but he does wants students to understand the full scope of evidence available in evolutionary science. Other teachers on the committee said high school students were not ready to question evolution. Bohlin said he disagrees.

He proposed putting in alternative language that would allow students to keep questioning evolution but would cut down the class time that process would take.

But he was outnumbered Tuesday by people who wanted to accept the committee's recommendations to remove the controversial passages.

Former elementary school science teacher Joni Ashbrook pointed out that the language used in one of the passages is a major premise of creationist textbook Exploring Evolution, promoting the idea that a supernatural agent explains an explosion of new animal body forms in the fossil record.

"I have no problem if someone believes that, but I am horrified that certain phrases could be used as a Trojan horse for textbook publishers or teachers with a religious agenda," she said.

Several University of Texas at Austin scientists testified and encouraged board members to listen to the committee. Many said they were teaching students in entry-level classes who had gone through the Texas public education system and were lacking foundational science skills.

Biology PhD candidate Rebecca Tarvin said she taught a freshman biology class at the university in 2012 and noted that Texan students "lagged behind in science comprehension and writing skills."

UT-Austin Professor Arturo De Lozanne urged the board to run any amendments by the committee before approving them."The establishment of our educational goals should not be based on opinion polls but on the expertise of those who are intimately engaged with our students and with the content being taught," he said.

Read related Tribune coverage here:

  • 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 in November.
  • The new Republican State Board of Education representative isn't saying whether he'll vote to remove creationism from state science curriculum standards.

Disclosure: The University of Texas has been a financial supporter of The Texas Tribune. A complete list of Tribune donors and sponsors is available here. 

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