New and Revised Texas Science Standards Are
Now Available for Public Review and Comment

Includes a Review of the New Science Standards
Introductions and the Biology Standards

by Steven Schafersman, Ph.D.
President, Texas Citizens for Science
2008 September 25

Every ten years, the Texas Education Agency must revise the curriculum standards for the various disciplines in public schools. The standards are followed by authors and publishers for textbook content, by teachers for course content, and by the TEA for standardized end-of-course exams. This year and early next year it is the turn of Science. The just-completed revision of the English Language Arts and Reading standards was highly contentious, and Science standards are likely to be equally controversial. The proposed new and revised science standards are now available for public reading and comment.

As many of you know, Texas Citizens for Science is heavily involved in making sure the new and revised science standards in Texas this year are scientifically accurate, reliable, and of high quality. The science standards are known as the Science TEKS, the Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills. The TEKS work-groups or panels are composed of science teachers and scientists who have met several times in Austin. The work-groups recently completed their first drafts of the proposed standards. Most science standards--such as those for Biology, Chemistry, and Physics--were revised, but standards for two new courses were written: Earth and Space Science and Engineering Design and Problem Solving. I was honored to be a member of the ESS panel, and my colleagues and I worked hard to produce an innovative and relevant course that will give students a modern understanding of the Earth and its subsystems in space and time.

Draft Texas Science Standards are Released

I am happy to announce that the initial draft of these new and revised science standards are now available to the public from the Texas Education Agency website at http://www.tea.state.tx.us/teks/scienceTEKS.html. There are three documents: Grades K-5, Grades 6-8, and High School (grades 9-12). The public will soon be able to send comments about the proposed standards to the actual work-group members who will consider them and possibly make changes. Other panels of professional scientists, grammar specialists, and education experts will review the proposed standards and also suggest changes if necessary. The science panels will be able to edit their standards document in late October and create a final version that will then go to the State Board of Education (SBOE) for final debate, editing, and approval. The SBOE has the right, by majority vote of the fifteen members, to make any changes it wants in the language of the science standards. Since there are no scientists on the SBOE and since seven members are Young Earth Creationists--most of whom have publicly stated their intention to distort evolution standards and damage science instruction--it is likely that the public debate and approval will be contentious.

Problems with the Proposed Science Standards : "Strengths and Weaknesses"

I intend to write my own comments to the various science discipline work-groups, send them in via the web form, and request that they make changes. Here, very briefly, are some of my concerns.

Both Chemistry and Astronomy left unchanged the "strengths and weaknesses" language of rule 3A. This is most unfortunate, since the old rule 3A is the primary weapon that Creationists have used in the past to attempt to damage and corrupt science textbooks, but there is still time and an opportunity for the chemistry and astronomy teams to revise their rule 3A language and make it consistent with the other science disciplines, which I heartily encourage them to do. The other science disciplines made the change to the new language. Here is the old and new language:

Current Rule 3A

(3) The student uses critical thinking and scientific problem solving to make informed decisions.
(A) The student is expected to analyze, review, and critique scientific explanations, including hypotheses and theories, as to their strengths and weaknesses using scientific evidence and information.

Proposed New Rule 3A

(3) The student uses critical thinking, scientific reasoning, and problem solving to make informed decisions within and outside the classroom.
(A) The student is expected to analyze and evaluate scientific explanations using empirical evidence, logical reasoning, and experimental and observational testing.

For many reasons I have written about elsewhere, the "critique scientific explanations" and "strengths and weaknesses" language in old rule 3A is unscientific and educationally inappropriate. The language was created by Creationists on the SBOE twenty years ago and used with the old Textbook Proclamation requirements--then the de facto curriculum standards--and was retained when the first TEKS were adopted by the TEA in 1997. The rule 3A "weaknesses" language has been used repeatedly by anti-evolutionists--most recently by the Discovery Institute in 2003--to attempt to damage Texas science education and biology textbooks. The DI and its seven supporters on the SBOE want to keep the old rule 3A language in the standards so they can keep attacking accurate science education and textbooks that dare to present science accurately. For some reason, the Chemistry and Astronomy panels missed the boat on the new rule 3A language, which was written by science education experts and endorsed by STAT, the Science Teachers Association of Texas. I will certainly suggest in my comments that these two discipline panels make the suggested revision.

National Academy of Sciences on Scientific Explanations

Another issue was the language about observational evidence and the nature and testability of scientific explanations that some disciplines added to the introductions of their revised standards. The language is from the National Academy of Sciences' new book Science, Evolution, and Creationism, p. 10. One version of the language is as follows:

Scientific explanations must be based on naturally occurring phenomena, and must be capable of testing by multiple independent researchers. If scientific explanations are based on purported forces that are outside of nature, scientists have no way of testing those explanations. Unless a proposed scientific explanation is framed in a way that some observational evidence could potentially refute it, that explanation cannot be subject to scientific testing.

I am certainly in favor of this addition to the various disciplines' TEKS. However, I notice that several science disciplines did not add this excellent language at all: Integrated Physics and Chemistry, Chemistry, Physics, and Astronomy. In fact, it appears that only Biology, Aquatic Science, and Earth and Space Science added the NAS language, each with different wording, and Environmental Systems added a paragraph with similar meaning that does not use the NAS language. I can't account for the discrepancies, but I will recommend that each discipline adopt a uniform version of this excellent language that separates science from pseudoscience. Obviously, the pseudoscience that the NAS language addresses so well is Intelligent Design Creationism.

Biology Standards Omit Human Evolution

Biology's treatment of evolution is satisfactory but could have been beefed up. Unfortunately, I noticed that--as also occurred with the Biology College Readiness Standards--a requirement for students to learn about human evolution was omitted. So, self-censorship continues in Texas. While I sympathize with the biology panel's unwillingness to tempt fate, I must point out that the panel failed its historical scientific responsibility to fearlessly require accurate and reliable biology instruction in our public schools in the face of Fundamentalist religious opposition. As I have several times stated, our public schools must be secular and must not pander to religious anti-science sensibilities, especially those of the most benighted sects.

Apparently, there are still limits in Texas to how much science can be presented to curious student minds. Even Florida mandated the study of human evolution in both 7th grade and high school. Texas would do well to emulate Florida. I'm sure the competent teachers on the biology panel discussed a requirement for human evolution, but they ultimately decided against it. They should have included it and forced the SBOE members to remove it by majority vote rather than by giving their prior permission to continue censorship.

Biology Standards and the Term "Theory"

The evolution concept (7) requirement reads: "The student knows evolutionary theory is an explanation for the diversity of life." Nowhere in the biology standards is the word "theory" defined, so Creationist parents and SBOE members will continue to do their worst and mis-define "theory" as an idea, guess, speculation, or suggestion, not what a scientific theory really is, the most accurate, reliable, and truthful knowledge humans possess about the natural world. The sentence should have been worded "The student knows that evolution is an explanation for the diversity of life" or, at the very least, "The student knows the scientific theory of evolution is an explanation for the diversity of life." The word "theory" is invariably misconstrued by anti-evolutionists and is best removed; however, use of the term "scientific theory" along with a correct definition is satisfactory. I hope the biology panel corrects this at their next opportunity.

The original Florida science standards--written by scientists and science teachers--used the term "evolution" as the explanation for the diversity of life, but days before the final Florida SBOE vote, the wording was changed to "scientific theory of evolution" to gain the vital single extra vote that allowed the scientific standards to be adopted by a 4-3 vote. The story behind this language change is amazing and frightening, since it  provides enormous insight into how science instruction is compromised in a land in which education is subject to ignorant and hypocritical political control by elected officials influenced by hundreds of anti-scientific emails from religious Fundamentalists who opposed the new standards. The same thing will certainly happen in Texas and should be even more bizarre and hypocritical.

Another equally serious defect in the Biology draft standards is that the term "theory" is used only for science concept (7), the one that describes evolution (quoted above). The word "theory" is not used in all the other science concepts that require student knowledge of cell biology, genetics, taxonomy, molecular biology, or ecology. For these, the words "the student knows" are followed by straightforward knowledge requirements, such as "that cells are the basic structures of all living things with specialized parts that perform specific functions" and "the mechanisms of genetics including the role of nucleic acids and the principles of Mendelian Genetics."

If all the Biology science concepts were consistent with the evolution concept, the requirements would read "The student knows that cell theory is the explanation for the basic cell structure of all living things with specialized parts that perform specific functions," "The student knows that genetic theory explains the role of nucleic acids and the principles of Mendelian Genetics," and so forth with "taxonomic theory," "biochemical theory," and "ecological theory." As scientists know, everything in science is theoretical, which is what gives science its enormous explanatory power, veracity, and success compared with all other knowledge systems. So why is the term "theory" used only as a qualification for evolution, without its proper adjective "scientific," and the term "scientific theory" not properly defined as the best and most truthful knowledge humans possess about nature?

History of the Anti-Science Biology Standards Language

The reason for the defect is old and distasteful. It dates back to when the biology standards were written with the first explicit requirement for evolution--in 1997. I have written about this reprehensible history before, but as usual the science teachers responsible ignored my criticisms, even when they had a chance to correct their mistake. Now they have one more chance to correct this defect. When the TEKS were written and standardized in 1997, evolution was added as a requirement to the biology standards for the first time. The addition was controversial, and TEA administrators didn't want to do it knowing that many SBOE members would object. The TEA science staff and science teachers responsible for writing the Biology TEKS threatened to resign en masse unless evolution was added (Christine Comer was a member of this group).

A compromise was reached. Rule 3A was added from a ten-year old Biology Textbook Proclamation, originally written by Creationist SBOE members to qualify evolutionary explanations in biology texts by requiring publishers to include "weaknesses." New Rule 3A was added to every scientific discipline in the TEKS to make it Constitutional and thus legal. The reason is that originally the "strengths and weaknesses" language only referred to biology and evolution, but by then the stealthy anti-evolutionists on the TEA staff and SBOE knew that courts were looking at history and intent as well as language when evaluating religiously-inspired anti-evolution rules and statutes, so the unscientific language was applied across the board to give it a semblance of Establishment Clause legitimacy, which of course it does not have, but litigating this subtle point would be expensive and time-consuming.  In addition, the word "theory" was added only to the new evolution requirement without the adjective "scientific" since the anti-science Creationists on the SBOE knew the word "theory" used by itself could be construed in the popular sense of speculation, idea, suggestion, or guess. This is the scientifically demeaning language that has persisted to this very day that the Biology TEKS panel has partially tried to remove, but even it has been constrained by a lack of historical knowledge and attention to detail.

The scientifically inaccurate use of the word "theory" only for the evolution concept must be corrected. This defect has persisted now for over a decade and needs to be changed. The best solution would be to write the evolution concept (7) without qualification as "The student knows that evolution is an explanation for the diversity of life." Failing that, the evolution concept could be re-written as "The student knows the scientific theory of evolution is an explanation for the diversity of life" and then re-write all the other concepts (cell biology, genetics, etc.) using the term "scientific theory." Nothing less is intellectually honest and scientifically responsible.

So, much work remains to be done to make the introductions and scientific processes language the same among the various science disciplines. The most important goal is to revise rule 3A in both the chemistry and astronomy standards to remove the terms "strengths and weaknesses" and insert the same rule 3A language the others use. Secondary goals would be to insert the NAS language into all of the disciplines' standards, possibly agreeing on the same wording to be consistent, and to make sure the word "theory" is either removed or correctly defined and changed to "scientific theory" in the biology standards.

A feedback form will be made available soon at the same TEA web address at which you can download the draft science standards: http://www.tea.state.tx.us/teks/scienceTEKS.html

Review the science standards, write your comments and suggested revisions, and send them to the TEA via the feedback form. As a member of one of the standards-drafting committees, I can tell you that your comments will be given to each member of the committee you address for review and possible revision. I suggest you be succinct and precisely identify which section you suggest a change or addition to make your suggestions easy to follow. Also, feel free to document your suggested revision or addition. I can also tell you that suggestions that ask for Creationism to be included will be ignored, since the members of the science panels are all scientists.

For example, here's how I will address my concerns about the Biology standards:

"Knowledge and skills. (7) Science concepts. The student knows evolutionary theory is an explanation for the diversity of life. The student is expected to:"

I suggest you change this requirement to either "The student knows biological evolution is an explanation for the diversity of life" or "The student knows the scientific theory of evolution is an explanation for the diversity of life." I prefer the former, since the word "theory" is invariably misconstrued by anti-evolutionists and is best removed; however, use of the term "scientific theory" along with a correct definition is satisfactory.

I suggest that if you choose to use the phrase "scientific theory of evolution," you also use the term "scientific theory" with every other biological concept, including cell biology, genetics, taxonomy, molecular biology, and ecology. Keeping the term "theory" without the adjective "scientific" and using it only for evolution and not other biological concepts are both scientifically dishonest. If you choose this solution, you must also correctly define the term "scientific theory."

I suggest you add "Student Expectation (F): describe the evidence for human evolution including the significance of human DNA, the similarities of the human and other vertebrate bodies, and the occurrence of at least 22 fossil hominid species leading to modern humans."

Three recent books describe the evidence listed above: Relics of Eden: The Powerful Evidence of Evolution in Human DNA by Daniel J. Fairbanks, Your Inner Fish: A Journey into the 3.5-Billion-Year History of the Human Body by Neil Shubin, and The Last Human: A Guide to Twenty-Two Species of Extinct Humans by G. J. Sawyer. Every science student needs to know this information about themselves, and keeping it from them is censorship.


Texas Citizens for Science
Last updated: 2008 September 25