Q&A About Texas Science Standards Review and Debate Over How to Teach Evolution

What is the science standards issue currently before the Texas State Board of Education (SBOE)?

During 2008-09, the Texas SBOE is reviewing the state’s science standards, the Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills (TEKS) for science, which were originally adopted in 1998. The controversial issue before the SBOE is whether the TEKS will retain existing language calling for students to learn about both the scientific “strengths and weaknesses” of scientific theories. Some have proposed removing that language from the TEKS entirely, while others have suggested that good science education that encourages critical thinking should apply to all aspects of the curriculum, especially to the teaching of controversial scientific theories like neo-Darwinian evolution.

In September 2008, writing committees working for the Texas Education Agency (TEA) proposed revised TEKS that would largely eliminate the “strengths and weaknesses” language found throughout the existing TEKS, making critical thinking a less important part of the curriculum. The apparent goal is to shield biological evolution from critical scrutiny and to teach it in a one-sided fashion. To help the SBOE decide whether to retain the “strengths and weaknesses” language, board members nominated in October a review panel of six experts to supply critical feedback on the proposed TEKS for science. These expert reviewers submitted their written analysis and recommendations in late October, but the SBOE is not expected to vote to adopt final revisions to the TEKS until sometime in 2009.

What is the problem with the current standards?

The current TEKS appropriately call for students to “analyze, review, and critique scientific explanations, including hypotheses and theories, as to their strengths and weaknesses using scientific evidence and information.” There is nothing wrong with this “strengths and weaknesses” standard, except it is a general provision that is not specifically applied to particular scientific theories and hypotheses. When evolution is covered in the current TEKS, for example, there is no indication that students should engage in any meaningful form of critical analysis of the theory.

Who is proposing to remove the “strengths and weaknesses” language?

Interest groups like the misnamed “21st Century Science Coalition” and “Texas Citizens for Science” are pushing for removal of the language in order to shield Darwinian evolution from scrutiny. Unfortunately, writing committees working with the TEA have acceded to the demands of these pressure groups for the most part. A few sections of their proposed TEKS inconsistently require students to learn about the “strengths and weaknesses” of scientific theories, but when it comes to fields like biology (which covers biological evolution) or earth sciences (which covers both biological and chemical evolution), their proposed TEKS do not encourage students to engage in such critical thinking. It is not surprising that the proposed TEKS single out evolution as being beyond scientific critique since the writing committees included dogmatic Darwinists such as Steven Schafersman, head of the activist group Texas Citizens for Science.

What recommendations have the expert reviewers made who favor the “strengths and weaknesses” language?

(See expert reviews here.) Three scientists—biologist Ralph Seelke, philosopher of science Stephen C. Meyer, and chemist Charles Garner—have proposed that the TEKS retain the “strengths and weaknesses” language. They have advised the State Board that good science education will encourage students to learn the scientific facts and engage in more critical thinking than they would under the TEA’s proposed TEKS. In this regard, these scientists have made three key recommendations:

  • the TEKS should not include pejorative or inaccurate language in their definition of science, but they should encourage students to understand how scientists think skeptically and critically and engage in scientific debate when solving scientific problems.
  • the TEKS should encourage students to learn about the impact of science on culture and society, providing both positive and negative examples of such impacts.
  • the TEKS should not only retain the “strengths and weaknesses” language, but strengthen critical thinking skills by explicitly applying this approach to the study of specific scientific theories and hypotheses, including biological and chemical evolution.

While some Darwinists claim that teaching the “strengths and weaknesses” will hurt science education, Dr. Stephen Meyer points out that the National Research Council (a sister organization to the National Academy of Sciences) has suggested inquiry-based science education should lead to learning about “both the strengths and weaknesses of [scientific] claims”:

At each of the steps involved in inquiry, students and teachers ought to ask ‘what counts?’ What data do we keep? What data do we discard? What patterns exist in the data? Are these patterns appropriate for this inquiry? What explanations account for the patterns? Is one explanation better than another? In justifying their decisions, students ought to draw on evidence and analytical tools to derive a scientific claim. In turn, students should be able to assess both the strengths and weaknesses of their claims. (National Research Council, Inquiry and the National Science Education Standards: A Guide for Teaching and Learning, pg. 19 (National Academy Press, 2000), emphasis added.)

The National Research Council similarly stresses that “[t]hroughout the process of inquiry” students should “constantly evaluate and reevaluate the nature and strength of evidence and share and then critique their explanations and those of others.” (Ibid., pg. 124.) These scientists argue that general requirements for critical thinking in the current TEKS and the lack of scientific inquiry in the proposed TEKS fall short of the high standard of inquiry-based science education that students in Texas deserve to receive.

What recommendations have the other expert reviewers made?

Three Darwinists—Gerald Skoog, David Hillis, and Ronald Wetherington—have reviewed the proposed TEKS and suggested removing or de-emphasizing the “strengths and weaknesses” language from the TEKS. In particular, they suggest students learn about evolution in a one-sided pro-Darwin-only fashion. These reviewers are proposing that the State Board adopt a pro-Darwin-only curriculum for Texas students that would discuss only the evidence that “ha[s] reinforced the scientific strength and validity of the evolutionary concept.” They propose either removing the “strengths and weaknesses” language from the standards completely or watering it down such that students will not apply critical thinking when studying controversial scientific theories like neo-Darwinian evolution or chemical evolution. They argue that allowing students to learn about any scientific weaknesses of neo-Darwinism “is well beyond what is possible or reasonable or productive in a high school classroom.”

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