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Grading Texas science classes

We get a C.

Texas public school science courses “pay lip service” to critical content and largely ignore evolution in the middle grades, according to a national education foundation study that gives the state of Texas an overall “C” for science education.

The average grade for Texas science curriculum standards by the Thomas B. Fordham Institute in a national report card Tuesday represents a step up from the “F” issued for Texas two years ago by the National Center for Science Education.

Texas science curriculum standards are “just too vague,” said Kathleen Porter-Magee, a senior director at Fordham. “They cover a lot of the essential content, but they don’t do it in a way that can actually guide curriculum or guide instruction in the classroom or can guide assessment development.”

It’s also better than the D we got in Social Studies from the Fordham Institute. You can see the Texas report here and a full list of state reports plus their other materials related to this here.

The report offers a mixed review on how Texas teaches evolution. The evolution portion of the new Texas science curriculum standards provoked considerable controversy before the State Board of Education adopted them in 2009.

“In spite of the Texas Board of Education’s erratic approach to evolution, the state’s current high school biology standards handle the subject straightforwardly,” the report says

[...]

“As a science teacher, I am pleased that our standards received a score of 5 out of 7 for content and rigor,” said board chairwoman Barbara Cargill, R-The Woodlands. “We look forward to continuing to work with Texas teachers to bring the best instruction to the classroom with our excellent science standards.”

Former board member Don McLeroy, R-Bryan, lost his chairmanship, in part, because Senate Democrats believed he injected his strong religious beliefs into the curriculum development and blocked his nomination three years ago.

McLeroy said he was pleased the report described the high school evolution teaching as “exemplary.”

“The report confirms what I have always insisted: that the creationists inserted real scientific rigor into the teaching of evolution,” McLeroy said.

McLeroy is as dishonest as ever. Here’s what the report said about Texas and the teaching of evolution:

Evolution is all but ignored from Kindergarten through fifth grade, save a sentence in the earth and space science section that asks students to “identify fossils as evidence of past living organisms” (grade 5).

The middle school standards are marginally better, but still problematic. For example, seventh graders should learn that:

Populations and species demonstrate variation and inherit many of their unique traits through gradual processes over many generations. (grade 7)

Unfortunately, this is simply wrong. Traits are inherited directly at each generation; there’s nothing gradual about it. Students are then asked to explain variation within a population or species by examining external features that enhance survival. Such examinations will yield no explanation of variation.

Perhaps the biggest problem with the middle school standards, however, is their coverage of evolution. For instance, the seventh-grade standards mention the Galapagos finches, giving the impression that the Darwinian paradigm is being presented. Unfortunately, it is not. Instead, the example of the finch Geospiza fortis apparently refers to studies by Peter and Rosemary Grant on beak size in this species, made widely known by Jonathan Weiner’s Pulitzer Prize-winning book, The Beak of the Finch. Creationists often distort these important findings to argue that Darwinian macroevolution does not occur—instead, microevolution does. In addition, the word “evolution” is never used in any of the middle school standards, and the term “natural selection” is never explained.

In spite of the Texas Board of Education’s erratic approach to evolution, the state’s current high school biology standards handle the subject straightforwardly. There are no concessions to “controversies” or “alternative theories.” In fact, the high school biology course is exemplary in its choice and presentation of topics, including its thorough consideration of biological evolution. Even so, the term “natural selection” appears just three times, as does the word “evolution” and its variants. It is hard to see how Texas students will be able to handle this course, given the insufficient foundations offered prior to high school.

In other words, it’s pretty clear they think McLeroy and his bunch were the problem, not the solution. The more voters that see it that way as well, the better. One Democrat running for the SBOE had some sharp words for his putative colleagues.

Steven Schafersman, president of Texas Citizens for Science and a longtime critic of the board’s conservatives, said the Fordham analysis overlooked some glaring problems with Texas’ standards.

He pointed to a separate examination from the National Center for Science Education that found Texas’ standards contain “creationist jargon” and “reflect political and religious agendas, rather than good pedagogy and strong science.”

“Without the State Board-mandated political, anti-scientific changes, Texas would have received an A or perhaps B grade from the Fordham reviewers,” said Schafersman, who is running as a Democrat for an open West Texas seat on the board.

If Schafersman’s name sounds familiar to you, it’s because he’s been one of the indefatigable SBOE meeting livebloggers of late. He’d be a great addition to the Board, but he’s running in a bright red district, so I can’t say I’m holding out any hope. Texas Politics has a link to Schafersman’s full response. TFN Insider has more.

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5 Comments

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