Texas Science Standards Will Be Debated and Voted On During January 21-23

Public and Expert Testimony Will Be Heard

Steven Schafersman, Ph.D.
Texas Citizens for Science
2009 January 12

The Texas State Board of Education will meet during January 21-23 to begin their work on the new science standards. Wednesday, January 21,  will be devoted to hearing public testimony in the morning and then hearing from the six expert reviewers in the afternoon. I will live blog the entire three days, with photos, at http://www.chron.com/commons/readerblogs/evosphere.html. Please don't bother to register to speak, since everyone who wants to already knows what to do, but I have the necessary information for you anyway. Testimony will be taken from 8:00 a.m. to 12:00 noon, so few people will be able to speak. SBOE Chair and Young Earth Creationist Don McLeroy no doubt thought he and his fellow members have already heard every argument. This is probably true. Also, the great majority of those who testified--in about an 8 to 1 ratio, including many professional scientists--were opposed to subverting the science standards by forcing in the old "weaknesses" language about evolution, which just happens to be what McLeroy and his fellow radical religious-right members plan to do. Who would want to listen to seven more hours of such negative public feedback again, especially when your goal is to damage science education in Texas for the next ten years? These Board members think: can't these concerned citizens just leave us alone to do our dirty work in secret as we able to do in the past?

The third and final draft of the Science TEKS (Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills), our state's science curriculum standards, was released to the public on December 22. This draft is the official Proposed Recommendations, and is the one the SBOE will evaluate, debate, possibly change by amendment and majority vote, and adopt for state use. This final version can be found, along with the two earlier versions, at http://ritter.tea.state.tx.us/teks/scienceTEKS.html. The specific document you want, for the high school science standards, is at http://ritter.tea.state.tx.us/teks/Sci_TEKS_9-12_Clean_010509.pdf. The grades K-5 and 6-8 versions are available, too.

I know many people have been waiting for my analysis of the final version of the science standards, and I provide it below. I notified my email lists on Dec 24, when in the midst of the Christmas holidays I finally found the documents posted. The National Center of Science Education and Texas Freedom Network posted their analyses that day and the next. The only news report of the new standards was from Matt Frazier on January 1. I had the holidays, family illnesses, three Christmas Bird Counts, and many other items to deal with, so my analysis is late, but it is worth waiting for because it is definitive.

If you can't testify in person, and most of you will not be able to do this, you should write to and encourage your SBOE member to vote to adopt the final draft without revision or modification because, I can tell you now, the final science standards are very good and are probably the best we can achieve in Texas at the beginning of this century. There is certainly room for improvement, as I explain below, but let's not complicate things this time by asking the State Board to make revisions. Once they start, anything can happen, and it probably won't be good for science if past experience is a guide. The Proposed Recommendations do not use the phrase "strengths and weaknesses" or "strengths and limitations," language present in the first and second drafts, and it is stronger scientifically than the previous drafts.

You can find your SBOE member's address at http://ritter.tea.state.tx.us/sboe/members.html, and obtain many official documents for the meeting at http://ritter.tea.state.tx.us/sboe/mtg_mat_current.html. Also, if you go to this page during the meeting, you can access a real-time web audio feed which is later archived at http://ritter.tea.state.tx.us/sboe/audio_archived.html. If you are really interested in or obsessive about science education in Texas, as I am, I suggest you listen to the audio feed in one web browser window and read my live blog in another. If you can spare the time, you will have three very satisfying days of enjoyment. There is nothing quite like a Texas State Board of Education hearing, in which some politically-elected individuals with the most extreme religious, political, and radical views and agendas try to bend Texas public education to fit their reactionary and fantastic understanding of the world. It is unfortunate that these individuals have so much political power now, but the citizens of Texas gave it to them, so if their children suffer the consequences of blighted science educations, they have only themselves to blame. Fortunately, the scientists and science teachers of Texas are organized to protect the professionalism and integrity of science, so there will be quite a battle.

If you insist on testifying in person, go to http://ritter.tea.state.tx.us/sboe/op_rules.html#publictestimony for the information you will need to do this. If the SBOE members don't ask questions, they will be able to listen to about 60-70 citizens. If they ask questions, no more than 40 people will be able to speak. The last time there was public testimony about the science standards, on November 19, 90 people testified, a few Board members asked questions, and the testimony went on for seven hours. Most SBOE members left early. Remember to bring 35 copies of your testimony, which should fit on one page because you will only have three minutes to speak.

After lunch, the SBOE will listen to the testimony of the six "experts" they hired to perform professional scientific review. As discussed in another blog and essay of mine, three of these experts are legitimate scientists and science educators who have particular knowledge of science standards, but three were notorious anti-evolutionists and Creationists who should have no business reviewing science standards. The written feedback of all six of these individuals is available here or here. I am currently preparing an analysis of the feedback of the three Creationist experts and will post it here before January 21. For now, to learn something about what to expect from the "expert reviewers," see the Great Texas Kangaroo Smackdown blog or essay.

Review of the Proposed Recommendations of Texas Science TEKS

Let us now examine the final, proposed version of the science standards. First, and most importantly, all eight of the high school science courses posses uniform and identical versions of many important concepts (I did not examine grades K-8). The most significant of these, of course, is Knowledge and Skill (c)(3)(A) on scientific method. This item is also commonly referred to as Standard 3A, TEKS 3A, or Rule 3A.  Here it is:

(3) The student uses critical thinking, scientific reasoning and problem solving to make informed decisions within and outside the classroom. The student is expected to:

(A) analyze and evaluate scientific explanations using empirical evidence, logical reasoning, and experimental and observational testing;

This is a straightforward and scientifically uncontroversial description of the process that a scientist uses when performing the scientific method, which the student is expected to learn and emulate. Scientists use critical thinking when they investigate natural problems and make scientific discoveries. Critical thinking,  scientific reasoning, and problem solving (which are essentially the same technique or skill) all make use of the three epistemologies or methods of acquiring reliable knowledge: empirical evidence, logical reasoning, and skeptical testing of hypotheses. Ultimately, all the science panels came to the same conclusion: this is the best description of how scientists think and act when they perform science.

The version of rule 3A in use in the science TEKS since 1997 contained misleading and unscientific language about scientific explanations, the notorious "strengths and weaknesses" phrase. This phrase was used previously to 1997 in Texas Textbook Proclamations, the de facto curriculum standards used in Texas prior to the adoption of the Essential Elements, ultimately named the TEKS. I have written several times about the history of Texas science standards and the "strengths and weaknesses" phrase, and will do so again here shortly, because I need to revise my history, but that needn't concern us now. The word "weaknesses" in the science standards has been used by biology textbook critics to attempt to damage the books' evolution content and to intimidate public school teachers and administrators (many of whom, unfortunately, needed little intimidation) to encourage them to neglect evolution instruction. The word was first used half-heartedly in 1997, when George Bush was governor and Creationist biology textbook critics were asked to tone-down their rhetoric so as not to alarm the national press and make the nation think Texas was filled with Biblical Literalists and Fundamentalists, something that might damage Bush's presidential ambitions by giving him a negative reputation. A major and much-stronger effort by anti-evolutionists in 2003 used the word to attempt to undermine biology instruction by forcing the textbooks to include bogus "weaknesses" derived from the Discovery Institute's self-described "icons of evolution," which it claimed were all inaccurate and faulty, that is, weak. Both of these efforts failed and the Texas (and national) biology textbooks since the early 1990s have been strong in evolution content, much to the dismay of committed, organized, and aggressive Texas and national Creationists.

The primary reason that Creationists have failed over the years to damage biology textbooks using the old "weaknesses" language in rule 3A is because it requires that the "strengths and weaknesses" must use "scientific evidence and information." Here it is:

(3) The student uses critical thinking and scientific problem solving to make informed decisions. The student is expected to:

(A)  analyze, review, and critique scientific explanations, including hypotheses and theories, as to their strengths and weaknesses using scientific evidence and information;

Creationists have never been able to show that any legitimate "scientific" "weaknesses" exist for the scientific theory of evolution, the explanation they wish to attack. Scientists have testified that such weaknesses don't exist and a majority of SBOE members has accepted that testimony. The vote in 2003 was 11-4 against the anti-evolutionists, but they picked up three more votes since then and have the possibility of an eighth, which would give them the majority they need. Also, the "strengths and weaknesses" language is confusing, since scientific hypotheses--unlike scientific theories--do potentially have weaknesses, which is why scientists are always testing hypotheses--to determine if they are weak or not. Once a hypothesis is confirmed or corroborated, it becomes reliable knowledge and is part of the governing theory. Scientific theories are composed of only corroborated hypotheses so they have no weaknesses. Scientific theories are incomplete, of course, but not weak. The new rule 3A removed this confusion by not using either term, theory or hypothesis.

After the first drafts were written, chemistry and astronomy were found to have kept the original "strengths and weaknesses" rule 3A. The reason is that the chemistry panel contained an anti-evolutionist who fought to keep the original language, and no one on the astronomy panel knew about 3A's notoriety or understood its unscientific nature. After the second drafts were written, astronomy adopted the scientific version of rule 3A, but inexplicably and most alarmingly physics, chemistry, and biology used new language, "strengths and limitations," that had the same defects as "strengths and weaknesses." The physics panel came up with this poor phrase, and chemistry and biology adopted it, biology when only two panel members were left on the last day of the meeting. Because some members of the three major science panels listened to the November 19 testimony of several science professors, including myself, and read the abundant public and scientific feedback that objected to the new phrase, these panels decided to go along with the other five science disciplines and adopt the preferred and scientific version of 3A. Thus, all eight were now in agreement about this very important Knowledge and Skill standard.

Of course, the new rule 3A language will not prevent anti-evolutionists from using it to attack biology textbooks in the future. The new rule 3A specifies "scientific explanations," not "scientific hypotheses" alone to be analyzed and evaluated. So it refers to scientific theories, too, and conceivably they could be challenged by anti-scientists. But that would be okay because we would want students to "analyze and evaluate" both scientific theories and hypotheses using the proper epistemological methods. But now there is no imperative to "critique" scientific "theories" about their "weaknesses," which would be an exercise in futility and confusion for high school students and result in their miseducation. For a student to actually learn and practice critical thinking, a student must have a grounding in basic theoretical knowledge of science, and that can only be obtained by analyzing and evaluating scientific theories, not "critiquing" them for their "weaknesses," which is simply nonsense. When students do experiments or construct models that generate their own scientific hypotheses, these hypotheses will have weaknesses that can then be mitigated by testing. That's how science works.

Improved Science Definitions in the New Science Standards

Working together, the eight high school science panels plus the elementary and middle school panels decided to adopt uniform introductory language about the nature of science, scientific inquiry, science and social ethics, scientific models, and most important, definitions and descriptions of scientific hypotheses and theories. I will not quote them all there since they are easily available on the document I linked above, but I want to make a few vital points. First, science is defined using a National Academies of Science definition, the "use of evidence to construct testable explanations and predictions of natural phenomena..." This wording separates science from supernatural phenomena, such as proposals of Intelligent Design Creationism often alleged by anti-evolutionists. Next: "Students should know that some questions are outside the realm of science because they deal with phenomena that are not scientifically testable." Again, allegations of design or special creation by supernatural entities cannot be tested, so they are not scientific. The focus on making this distinction was deliberate and was done for the purpose of rejecting anti-scientific doctrines such as Creationism. Scientific inquiry "is the planned and deliberate investigation about the natural world." Again, note the emphasis on the word "natural." This is the realm of science, not supernatural agencies creating energy, matter, and life. Finally in Texas science education, a proper boundary has been placed between the two competing worlds of the natural and supernatural.

Next, a student is expected to distinguish between scientific hypotheses and scientific theories. This is a major distinction and advance in Texas science standards. Scientific hypotheses must be "testable statements" and "supported by observational evidence." If they have passed their tests and continue to have "durable explanatory power," they are "incorporated into theories." Precisely correct. Scientific theories are also "capable of being tested," as are all scientific explanations based on natural evidence, but unlike hypotheses, "scientific theories are well-established and highly reliable explanations..." In other words, they have no weaknesses.

To conclude this general section, it is apparent that the new proposed science TEKS are much better than prior versions, either the one used since 1997 or the two previous revised drafts. Despite some minor defects discussed below, this proposed version should be adopted by the SBOE without change. Any modifications that subvert or undermine its correct description of science, scientific inquiry, or the scientific method described in rule 3A, as several SBOE members claim they want to do, will negatively impact the scientific accuracy and integrity of these standards, so they should be adopted without editing or censorship by the State Board. Of course, if only eight members decide to do so, the entire new science standards can be thrown out and a corrupt, pseudoscientific version substituted at the last minute and adopted for use in Texas. Some individuals are actually worried this might happen. After all, this is what happened with the English Language Arts and Reading standards last May. If you recall, the new version--with large parts written ten years ago primarily by one former English teacher who has extremely reactionary views about proper English pedagogy--was slipped under the hotel room doors of most Board members only hours before a final vote. It took many weeks for this version to be published and made available to the public. Many ELAR teachers have said they will ignore it because it is so bad, but they will have to follow it to some extent. We will see if Texas English proficiency improves because of the last-minute, politically-motivated, Board-written ELAR standards.

The Problems with the Biology Standards

There are still problems with the biology standards, but it is too late to do anything about them now and they are fairly good, so it is best to just leave them alone. If you suggest to SBOE members that they start revising them, you won't like what you ultimately get. The Biology panel changed "The student knows evolutionary theory is an explanation for the diversity of life" to "The student knows evolutionary theory is a scientific explanation for the unity and diversity of life." This is certainly an improvement, but it's not the best wording possible. In the biology standards, only evolution is named "evolutionary theory" and the terms genetic theory, cell theory, developmental theory, etc. are not used, so this weakens the requirement by introducing a hook for deliberate misinterpretation and potential downgrading of evolution compared to the other topics. I strongly suggested that the word "theory" be removed, but it remains. It is common for anti-evolutionists, including the seven anti-evolutionist members on the SBOE, to claim that "evolution is only a theory and should be taught as such" (quote from SBOE member Barbara Cargill). Using the word theory here only plays into that willful scientific incompetence. However, all the science standards, including biology, now define theory in a scientifically-correct manner (see above), so this is really a minor problem now.

Adding "scientific" as an adjective to "explanation" is an improvement, but it would have been better if Biology had added "scientific" to the word "theory" also if the desire is to keep the word "theory." I agree that in context the word "theory" refers to "scientific theory," but I think it needs to be explicit, since any lapse or poor wording will be exploited by science's enemies. Unfortunately, this also was not done.

The phrase "the theory of biological evolution" (original TEKS) had been changed to "evolutionary theory is an explanation for the unity and diversity of life" in September (Draft 1)  and to "evolutionary theory is a scientific explanation for the unity and diversity of life" in November (Draft 2). To be precise and accurate, the standard should have been written to read "The student knows that evolution is the scientific explanation for the unity and diversity of life," but this was not done, so it remains ambiguous and unnecessarily qualified. Perhaps the biology panel members knew of other scientific explanations for the unity and diversity of life in addition to evolution. I don't.

I had one more suggestion for biology's evolution section. Human evolution is not explicitly required as a student expectation. If you don't require human evolution, teachers will avoid that topic in Texas and just teach evolution in general as those who actually teach evolution do, and the vast majority of Texas students will never learn the scientific explanation for the origin of our own species in their lifetimes, because they certainly aren't going to get this knowledge anywhere else (unless they accidentally catch a PBS program on human evolution while channel surfing). Only five or six states explicitly require that human evolution be taught (http://www.nytimes.com/2008/08/24/education/24evolution.html) and Florida was the most recent state to do so. Texas should have been next, especially if it values the science education of its children. But a human evolution student expectation was again omitted.

Some of the biology panel members believed that humans should not be singled out from other animals as an object of evolution (an odd example of reverse speciesism), and it is true that humans are just one of thousands of mammalian species that share similar features, but because of the great social and religious resistance to teaching about human evolution, an exception should have been made. It is frankly irresponsible to keep allowing students to think that humans are somehow qualitatively different from other animals (we are quantitatively different in several ways, of course). The true reason why there is no standard for students to study human evolution in Texas is so their fragile religious beliefs are not impugned and their Creationist parents (60% of Texans)  are not made hostile so they come to school and complain (that's first, threats are second) to principals and superintendents. That's Texas education for you: to keep the parents, principles, and superintendents happy, the students must remain ignorant.

Now we come to the last biology problem, one that I failed to notice before. As readers remember, Biology's original 1997 TEKS had the very unscientific and misleading scientific processes "strengths and weaknesses"  standard 3A, Draft 1 of September 2008 had the new and good standard 3A, Draft 2 of November 2008 substituted the educationally poor and unscientific "analyze and evaluate strengths and limitations of scientific explanations including those based on accepted scientific data," and Draft 3 of January 2009, the Proposed Recommendations, correctly returned to the good standard 3A. What I had overlooked is that all three of the drafts had standard 3D: "evaluate models according to their limitations in representing biological objects or events." Furthermore, this Knowledge and Skill scientific process standard was in the original 1997 Biology TEKS as standard 3E: "evaluate models according to their adequacy in representing biological objects or events." No doubt anti-evolutionists did a search, as I did, for the word "limitations" and found this. At least two blogs claimed that biology standard 3D was new and simply transferred the word "limitations" to another process skill standard when biology went back to the good 3A. In fact, this is a very old standard and the original word "adequacy" was changed to "limitations" during the very first biology panel revision meeting.

Could standard 3D be used to have compromise accurate and reliable biology content in textbooks, exams, and curricula? One Creationist blog said yes. It is possible, if the term "weaknesses" is kept out the biology standards and thus not available for exploitation, that anti-evolutionists could latch on to standard 3D and use it to claim that textbooks must "evaluate" the evolutionary model according to its "limitations in representing biological objects and event." Standard 3D is so vague and nonspecific that it would be possible to do this. What does standard 3D really mean by "models"? Is it referring to scientific theories, scientific hypotheses, or computer models? Does "limitations" include weaknesses or just incompleteness or difficulty? What is meant by "representing biological objects or events"? A plain reading to me says this standard refers to conceptual or virtual models, as created today using modeling software such as Stella, which obviously have limitations in representing natural objects, events, processes, and fluxes. After all, a model is a representation of a natural system, not the system itself (which can be studied in other ways). So, I think it would be too difficult in practice to misrepresent this standard and use it to try to damage textbooks. I really don't think this standard was written to adversely affect the content or instruction of biological theories, such as evolution, and it cannot easily be used to do such.

After this analysis, I think it is advisable to just leave the Biology standards alone and urge the State Board to accept them as they are written. While not perfect, they are satisfactory, not poorer than they were before the revision. Other biology standards were improved, most moderately and a few strongly. Yes, the evolution standards could be better, and should have been in the first decade of the 21st century, but Texas is a southern state and we can't expect it to move forward swiftly into a golden age of science. The Biology panel had several meetings to tinker with their standards, and it would be better to just accept what they came up with rather than allow these standards to receive the tender mercies of the Texas State Board of Education.

The Earth and Space Science Standards

I was going to discuss these standards here, but instead saved them for another essay which you can find adjacent to this one on the blog or website.

Texas Citizens for Science
Last updated: 2009 January 14