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Texas education board to consider compromise on evolution standards

The State Board of Education will take a final vote this week on whether to modify language in high school biology curriculum standards that would require students to challenge evolutionary science.

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

This week's State Board of Education debate about high school biology standards and governing how to teach students about the theory of evolution could come down to a single word: evaluate.

At a February meeting, board members took a preliminary vote to modify those curriculum standards, keeping in language that would require students to challenge evolutionary science.

Republican board member Barbara Cargill, who led the charge to keep in the controversial language, has said requiring students to "evaluate" certain biological processes is necessary for thorough biology instruction. Critics say keeping the word "evaluate" in those standards casts doubt on evolution in a way that could open the door to teaching creationism.

The board is set to hold that debate Tuesday and will take another preliminary vote on whether to modify the standards Wednesday, with a final vote set for Friday.

At the board's request in July, a 10-member committee of teachers and scientists took on the challenge of narrowing the biology curriculum standards known as Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills, or TEKS. The committee removed four passages that Democrats on the board and activists say allow teachers to challenge evolution in the classroom, advancing creationist ideas.

After the board voted in February to put a few of those controversial standards back in the TEKS, educators on the committee were not happy. A few have said they did not intend to make a political statement by taking out the controversial standards. They did it to cut down on instructional time, as was their mandate, and to allow teachers more leeway for depth in the subject, said committee member Ron Wetherington, an anthropology professor at Southern Methodist University.

He called the board's changes to the standards "pretty toxic ... We just said, 'Evaluate is out the window and we're not even going to talk about it.'" Cargill's proposal would add nine additional days of teaching to a high school biology class, he said.

Republican board member Marty Rowley said he has received a lot of letters from constituents "wanting to make sure we allow teachers the space to teach the strengths and weaknesses of evolution, and that we cover them with the depth that allows our students to compete globally in science."

He said any suggestion that the standards would open the door to creationism is "unfounded. I don't think there's been any evidence, anecdotal or otherwise, that Texas biology teachers are teaching creationism in biology."

After February's vote, the committee sent the board a letter proposing a compromise.

In the letter, signed by all 10 members, the committee recommends the removal of the word "evaluate" from two of the science standards Cargill had pushed to add. The first standard asks high schoolers to compare and contrast eukaryotic and prokaryotic cells to "evaluate ... their complexity." The second asks students to "evaluate scientific explanations for the origin of DNA."

The committee wants board members to change the word "evaluate" to "identify."

"Although our recommended compromises will add some instructional time back into our calendar, they will not create significant instructional problems," the letter reads.

Rowley would not say Monday whether he planned to move forward with this compromise.

"When you have your classroom experts, your teachers, telling you this, it seems to me the board has some responsibility to give them some deference here," said Dan Quinn, who represents left-leaning State Board of Education watchdog Texas Freedom Network. "They know what they're doing." 

Texas Freedom Network has been the main organization calling for the removal of the controversial science standards over the past several years, arguing they are a gateway to creationist alternatives to biological science. The proposed compromise, Quinn said, "looks very reasonable." 

Related Tribune coverage:

  • 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 members will hear public testimony Tuesday on science curriculum standards that teach students to discredit evolution. They will discuss potential amendments to the standards Wednesday.

Disclosure: Southern Methodist University has been a financial supporter of The Texas Tribune. A complete list of Tribune donors and sponsors can be viewed here.

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