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Texas education board tentatively votes to change high school biology standards

The State Board of Education has given preliminary approval to revised curriculum standards that would no longer require students to challenge scientific theories about evolution.

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

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Editor's note: This story was updated April 21 to note that the State Board of Education gave final approval to the proposed changes to the biology standards.

The Texas State Board of Education tentatively voted to remove language in high school biology standards that would have required students to challenge evolutionary science. 

Currently, the curriculum requires students to “evaluate” scientific explanations for the origins of DNA and the complexity of certain cells, which some have argued could open the door to teaching creationism. Wednesday's vote, which had been preceded by a lengthy and contentious debate in recent months, would change how science teachers approach such topics in the classroom. (Update, April 21: The State Board of Education took a final vote Friday to approve the edited biology standards, agreeing to exclude the word “evaluate.”)

The word "evaluate" could require another two weeks of lesson time for teachers who are already on tight schedules to cover material for the state's standardized tests, said Ron Wetherington, a Southern Methodist University professor on the 10-member committee of teachers and scientists that the board appointed in July to help streamline science standards.

The committee wrote a letter last week requesting narrower language to replace the word "evaluate," arguing it would save valuable instruction time without creating significant instructional problems.

On Wednesday, board member Keven Ellis proposed two amendments that reflected this feedback and eliminated the word "evaluate" from biology standards replacing it with language requiring students to "examine scientific explanations for the origin of DNA" and "compare and contrast scientific explanations" for the complexity of certain cells.

The word "examine" reflected a compromise between those on both sides of the debate who tussled between using the words "identify" and "evaluate."

Both amendments passed unanimously. A final vote on the issue will occur Friday.

Even Republican board member Barbara Cargill, who previously championed the effort to keep the controversial language in the curriculum, was on board.

It was a necessary change, according to Wetherington.

"'Evaluate' means you rank these scientific explanations in terms of how adequate they are, how complete they are, how many problems exist with them, what the evidence for each of the alternatives are. It takes a long time to do compared to just describing them," he said.

Students would not have the sufficient knowledge to go so deep, Wetherington said, explaining that they would have to know higher-level chemistry. 

He does not consider creationism a relevant concern since schools are "forbidden by law from even talking about it in the classroom."

During a Tuesday meeting of the board, several science teachers, including Sherry Joslin, said evaluating scientific theories could improve critical thinking skills for students.

Joslin, who is a former NASA engineer and the mother of two Houston public high school students, said, "When people ask me why I quit my job at NASA, I tell them that children are more complicated systems than space shuttles" and that "avoiding the evaluation of ideas hinders progress." 

But some teachers also reiterated concerns that the "evaluation" requirement would consume too many hours.

Scott Lane, a semi-retired educator with 33 years of experience as a math and science teacher, said public school teachers have six months to cover a year's worth of curricula. 

The debate over these standards stretches back to 2009, when board members added passages to persuade students to challenge scientific theories about the origin of life.

The left-leaning nonprofit Texas Freedom Network said in a statement that the revised standards would largely remove standards the state board added in 2009 “in an effort to undermine instruction on evolution in science classrooms.”

“No one has ever had a problem with requiring students to identify or examine scientific explanations and allowing them to ask questions in their classrooms. That’s how students learn,” said Kathy Miller, the group's president. “The issue has always been with politicians ignoring the objections of classroom teachers by forcing them to waste precious instructional time on junk science arguments designed to do little more than undermine student understanding of factual, established science on evolution.”

Read related Tribune coverage:

  • The Texas education board came close to a compromise on evolution standards during a meeting Tuesday.
  • Some school board members expressed their concerns about removing language that would allow students to evaluate certain biological processes. A streamlining committee, appointed by the board, wrote a letter arguing it would be important to change the curriculum.
  • 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 in February to do the opposite.
  • State Board of Education members heard public testimony in late January on science curriculum standards that teach students to discredit evolution.

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