Truth about Kansan Science standards

Truth about Kansan Science standards

(Published 23 Sep 1999 in the BDH as "Grad student defends Kansas curriculum changes, says evolution still being taught")

All summer, I've been reading misinformed letters-to-the-editor in my home paper about the recent evolution hullabaloo in Kansas. It was with a sick feeling of inevitability that I read the article by Jeremy Sinaikin in Wednesday's BDH and realised that I could probably look forward to probably dozens of back-and-forth attacks in the weeks to come.

Before you start, let me at least make a stab at defusing the argument somewhat. As most of you by now probably know, the Kansas State Board of Education passed a measure this summer (on 11 August) regarding minimum (note: minimum) teaching requirements in its schools. Specifically, when they decided what exactly students would be tested on, they omitted macroevolution. This is a rather smaller and more unassuming measure than most people believe.

For instance, microevolution will still be required. I'm sure all of you have heard of the example of the peppered moth. In preindustrial London the population was largely of white or light-coloured moths that blended well with the birch trees they lit on; but as soot from the factories darkened the birch trees, the population shifted heavily toward darker moths. More recently, as factories have closed down or cleaned up, the population has returned to being largely white. This is microevolution---natural selection in action. By the end of eighth grade, Kansans will be expected to know that ``over time, genetic variation acted upon by natural selection has brought variations in populations'' (Standard 3, Benchmark 5; KSBE Science Education Standards 1999), and by the end of twelfth grade, they should know that ``mutations occur in DNA at very low rates... some favorable mutations are passed on to offspring'' and ``that biologists recognize that the primary mechanisms of genotypic change are natural selection and random genetic drift'' (Standard 3, Benchmark 2; ibid). As you can see, environmental adaptation is certainly not omitted---on the contrary, it's required.

Note also that while students are not tested on macroevolution (that being speciation via random mutation), that does not mean that they cannot be taught it. One of the primary objections to being tested on macroevolution is that a student might be forced to assert that new species are formed by mutation, when they themselves do not believe this to be true. Yes, yes---I understand that creationism is not scientific because it is not falsifiable; but people are permitted to believe in non-scientific things (and most people have at least a few such beliefs). What Kansas could have done was test on the fact that most biologists believe in the theory of macroevolution via random mutation (thus bypassing the student's own belief system), but they didn't. Oh well. Honestly, if you replace the word `random' with `guided-by-God' (and why not?), both sides pretty much agree, anyway.

One of the less-mentioned aspects of the Standards is the section entitled ``Teaching With Tolerance and Respect''. Here we learn of the ``responsibility to enhance students' understanding of scientific concepts and theories. Compelling student belief is inconsistent with the goal of education.'' Which seems to be a fairly reasonable stance.

And lastly, a point I'd like to bring up that nobody else seems to is the fact that this is all and only about the material that appears on a statewide achievement test. What people seem to entirely miss in their reams of polemic is the fact that many states don't even have such a test! I could say of Illinois, ``what a backwards state---they don't test their students on macro OR micro evolution, those fundamentalist bible-thumping blah blah blah....'' Kansan local school boards and individual schools are just as capable as those in any other state of requiring that their students learn macro-evolution; the state itself just doesn't require it (and neither do many others).

So let the debate begin, but please be aware of the relative inconsequence of the Kansan measure: no subject is ``forbidden'' from being taught; microevolution is still tested; and the most `objectionable' thing about it is that students won't be forced to believe in anything. Those looking for fodder for argument, or simply for more enlightenment on the subject, would do well to check out the KSBE 1999 Science Education Standards on the web at

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Don Blaheta /

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