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State Science Standards and You: Utah in Focus

Sarah Chaffee

science standards

What does your child learn in biology class? In your state, what must schools teach about evolution?

Science standards are important in setting directions in K-12 education, yet too often they reflect a dogmatic approach. When standards come up for revision in your state, I hope that you will try to get involved. States nearly always provide opportunities for the public to participate. And we at the Center for Science & Culture are available to answer questions. You can reach me through the Free Science website’s Helpline page.

Currently, Utah is preparing to adopt new science standards. Writing teams have assembled draft standards, and the Department of Education recently released these standards for public review and comment. 

One-Sided Standards

The standards are based on the Next Generation Science Standards, the science equivalent of Common Core. Unfortunately, when it comes to evolution, they happen to be quite one-sided. The standards as drafted only call for learning the evidence in favor of neo-Darwinian evolution, while ignoring those areas where the evidence is equivocal or contrary to the standard theory. 

For example, one high school life science standard requires students to 

Obtain, evaluate and communicate information to identify patterns that show that common ancestry and biological evolution are supported by multiple lines of evidence, such as similarities in DNA sequences, amino acid sequences, anatomical structures, the fossil record, and order of appearance of structures during embryological development.

Students must affirm that each of these lines of evidence indeed favors biological evolution and common ancestry — even though there is much scientific debate over whether this is really the case! 

There are other one-sided evolution standards. Find the complete draft here, and look under Strand BIO.4: Evolutionary Change, as well as Standard BIO.4.5.

Why Be Concerned?

Why exactly should Utah residents be concerned? These one-sided standards will make it more difficult for teachers to present all of the scientific evidence, if they want to do so. Utah’s proposed standards imply that biological evolution and universal common ancestry are simply true, rather than giving students the data and letting them evaluate, think critically, and come to their own conclusions. 

Science teachers should be encouraged to discuss both the scientific strengths and weaknesses of neo-Darwinism. There is scientific controversy over

Students should be encouraged to analyze the fossil record, anatomical structures, and other lines of evidence that shed light on the history of life — then defend their positions.

A Profound Impact

Following public review and further writing team revisions, the Utah Board of Education will prepare to vote on new science standards. If you reside in Utah, please consider weighing in on this issue. If you live elsewhere in the United States, please consider 1) educating yourself on your state’s current science standards and 2) being prepared to participate when they come up next for review. 

Biology standards influence what textbook your child studies in school, and the concepts on which he or she will be tested. While discussions of science standards are often couched in bureaucratic-sounding language, the impact of these policies can be profound.

Photo: Utah State Capitol, Salt Lake City, by Scott Catron from Sandy, Utah, USA [CC BY-SA 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons.