Monday, December 12, 2005
On this day:

Alabama failing at science?

A new study conducted for the Thomas B. Fordham Institute gives Alabama a failing grade for its K-12 science standards. The state's treatment of evolution was singled out as a major reason for the low score. (The study, entitled "The State of State Science Standards 2005," is available online here.)

MONTGOMERY, Ala. (AP) — Alabama's disclaimer on evolution in its science guidelines helped earn the state an "F" in a national study released Wednesday comparing school science standards for primary and secondary school students. ...

Alabama state schools chief Joe Morton discounted the study, saying if Alabama didn't use the disclaimer it probably would have received a "B." He pointed out that Georgia jumped from an "F" in 2000 to a "B" in 2005 after it decided to keep the term "evolution" in its standards and not replace it with "change over time."

"I believe the grades given to states were less about science and more about social/political issues," Morton said in a memo Wednesday.

Morton may have a point. For instance, the study notes that Kansas's standards would have received a "C" this year, but the grade was dropped to an "F" in light of that state's recently-adopted biology standards. Critics say that Kansas's new standards open the door for the teaching of alternate "theories" to evolution, such as intelligent design and creationism. According to the Fordham Institute study:

Kansas has adopted standards whose treatment of evolutionary material has been radically compromised. The effect transcends evolution, however. It now makes a mockery of the very definition of science.

Likewise, Alabama's treatment of evolution undoubtably played a prominent role in earning its failing grade. After noting that the standards for the physical sciences suffered from "carelessness or outright error" in some instances, the study went on to say:

Similar and more serious faults are to be found in the life science standards. Most distressing, however, is the long statement provided in the preface to this entire document [referring to the Alabama Course of Study: Science]:

The theory of evolution by natural selection, a theory included in this document, states that natural selection provides the basis for the modern scientific explanation for the diversity of living things. Since natural selection has been observed to play a role in influencing small changes in a population, it is assumed, based on the study of artifacts, that it produces large changes, even though this has not been directly observed. Because of its importance and implications, students should understand the nature of evolutionary theories. They should learn to make distinctions among the multiple meanings of evolution, to distinguish between observations and assumptions used to draw conclusions, and to wrestle with the unanswered questions and unresolved problems still faced by evolutionary theory.

Although this is focused on evolution, and it paraphrases the "critiques" of evolutionary biology currently advanced by "intelligent design" creationism, it quite effectively derogates every branch of science. (There are, for example, many basic, "unanswered questions" about the fundamental forces of nature. Do we, for this reason, warn students to be suspicious of, or to "wrestle with," the "unresolved problems" of physics?) The Alabama preface sows confusion and offers a distorted view of what science is and how it is pursued. The quoted paragraph is preceded by mention of Copernicus, Newton, and Einstein, all physicists or astronomers; it then launches into an attack by misdirection on (evolutionary) biology. The statement is obviously of political, rather than scientific inspiration, and it reinforces the grade of "F."

This criticism is somewhat unwarranted, in my opinion. While the Board of Education's statement on evolution was almost certainly motivated more by political considerations than by a concern for scientific principle, it is still fair, objective, and truthful. It does not detract from the teaching of evolution, nor does it promote pseudoscientific "theories" like intelligent design. The notion that it "offers a distorted view of what science is and how it is pursued" just doesn't hold water.

Evolution is a topic that is admittedly (and unnecessarily) controversial, particularly among those who believe the biblical account of creation should be interpreted literally. Given the prevalence of that viewpoint here in Alabama, it has been very difficult to forge a consensus on how, and even whether, to teach evolution in the public schools. If it takes a moderate "disclaimer" like the one the Board of Education has adopted to do that, then what's the problem? It certainly gets a passing grade in my book.