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In preliminary vote, State Board of Education keeps controversial evolution standards

A day after hearing from scientists begging them to remove controversial language from science standards that some say opens the door to creationism, State Board of Education members took a preliminary vote Wednesday to do the opposite.

State Board of Education member Barbara Cargill attends a meeting of the board on Feb. 1, 2017, in Austin.

The Texas State Board of Education on Wednesday voted preliminarily for science standards that would keep in language that some say opens the door to creationism.

The votes came a day after the board heard from scientists begging them to remove the language. Board members are set to hold a second public hearing and take final votes on the changes to the science standards in April.

The process began in July, when the board convened a teacher committee that recommended the deletion of several high school science standards, including four controversial biology standards they said would be too complex for students to understand. In their recommendation for deleting a clause requiring students examine explanations on the "sudden appearance" of organism groups in the fossil record, they included the note, "Not enough time for students to master concept. Cognitively inappropriate for 9th grade students."

Republican board member Barbara Cargill led the charge Wednesday to keep three of those four standards in some form — arguing that they would actually help students better understand the science and keep teachers away from creationist ideas.

Democrats Georgina Perez, Erika Beltran, Ruben Cortez and Marisa Perez challenged each of those motions.

The board voted 9-5 to add language back into the standards requiring students to "examine scientific explanations of abrupt appearance and stasis in the fossil record" — against the recommendation of the committee.

At Tuesday's public hearing, former Texas science teacher Joni Ashbrook told the board that specific language is included in creationist arguments that a supernatural agent explains a burst of new forms in the fossil record.

But Cargill said her addition allows students to fully comprehend the ebbs and flows in the number of organism forms over time. "Something obviously happened in the environment, and they're gone and the fossil record flatlines and we don't see them anymore," she said.

Beltran disagreed, saying the term "'abrupt appearance" opened the door to non-scientific instruction.

"Once again, we see the board overruling and rewriting the work of classroom professionals and other experts who know better than anyone else how to teach our kids," said Kathy Miller, president of left-leaning state board watchdog group Texas Freedom Network. "Teachers are practically begging the board to stop forcing them to waste classroom time on junk science standards that are based mostly on the personal agendas of board members themselves, not sound science."

Read related Tribune coverage here:

  • 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.
  • 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.

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