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Science Standards Matter

October 23, 2003

Minnesota Education Commissioner Yecke has been quoted on several occasions as saying that schools and districts will have flexibility to teach all of the scientific data relating to the origins of life if they choose, due to language within the Santorum amendment of No Child Left Behind (NCLB). The Santorum amendment states:

"Where topics are taught that may generate controversy (such as biological evolution), the curriculum should help students to understand the full range of scientific views that exist, why such topics may generate controversy, and how scientific discoveries can profoundly affect society." (This language was passed overwhelmingly by both Houses of Congress.)

Unfortunately, flexibility in the classroom, if not reflected in the state science standards, is entirely meaningless. NCLB requires that state administer science tests, and that these tests be aligned with the state science standards.

If the Science Standards require that "students will...recognize that 3.5 billion years" are necessary to explain the origins of life, as the proposed standards presently require, then students will be tested on those standards. What teachers will teach other data that may interfere with a student's "correct" answer on a test -- a test which will classify the school as a failure or a success?

The tests determine what will be taught. No one argues that. The standards determine what will be on the test.

If you want to contact the Commissioner about incorporating the Santorum amendment her contact information is below:
Phone: 651-582-8200
E-mail: mde.commissioner@state.mn.us
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Pioneer Press Opinion
Posted on Fri, Oct. 17, 2003
Both extremes wrong in evolution debate
BY JEAN SWENSON
Guest Columnist

Some people think evolution should not be mentioned at all in public schools, while others think any evidence that may contradict evolution should not be allowed.

Both views reflect poor science, and if either side wins, students will lose. Unfortunately, that's just what might happen in Minnesota.

Although many people view Darwinian evolution as a valid explanation, others have begun questioning parts of this theory.

For example, a growing number of prominent biologists are signing on to the following statement: "We are skeptical of claims for the ability of random mutation and natural selection to account for the complexity of life. Careful examination of the evidence for Darwinian theory should be encouraged."

Written in 2001 to encourage open-mindedness within the scientific community, the statement has been supported by Nobel Prize nominee Fritz Schaeffer, Smithsonian Institution molecular biologist Richard Sternberg and Stanley Salthe, author of "Evolutionary Biology."

Minnesota is setting new content standards for K-12 science education. Committees have written a draft of these standards and, along with Education Commissioner Cheri Yecke, are inviting feedback from people like you at public hearings and through e-mail letters. (See www.education.state.mn.us for information and a copy of the standards.)

I commend the standards committee for its emphasis on knowledge and the scientific method. However, I'm concerned that some citizens and committee members want Darwinian evolution taught as undisputed fact while prohibiting any critical analysis of this and other scientific theories. This is no less biased than those who do not want evolution mentioned at all. History reveals how such suppression of data actually hinders science, while honest inquiry promotes it.

For example, the Earth-centered theory of the solar system proposed by Ptolemy in the first century was upheld as absolute truth for 1,500 years. Unfortunately, the church suppressed the work of Copernicus, Kepler, Galileo and others who challenged this theory with scientific evidence. Isaac Newton's publication about gravity and the sun- centered theory in 1687 finally overcame this bias and exposed the Earth-centered theory as dogma, not scientific fact.

Faith in God influenced these latter four scientists' pursuit of scientific discovery, so their conflict was not with religion but rather with bias against other theories. Those who would forbid any challenges to Darwinian theory are displaying this same kind of partiality.

Instead of answering these challenges with evidence that supports their theory, some defenders of "evolution-only" are taking another tactic - accusing all critics of trying to bring religion into the classroom. However, critical scientific analysis of Darwinian evolution is not religion, and exploration of all the facts should be encouraged.

Such exploration exemplifies the scientific method, which begins with observation and leads to a hypothesis (an educated guess that tries to explain the observation). This hypothesis is then tested, and if test results contradict the hypothesis, it is discarded or revised. A hypothesis that has been tested and supported by large amounts of data becomes a theory. A theory that withstands rigorous testing by independent scientists over time eventually becomes a scientific law.

All theories and even scientific laws must be tentative. For example, who would have thought Newton's Laws could ever be contradicted? Yet, Einstein and other scientists found that these laws could not explain certain complex problems.

Quantum mechanics became the new guiding principle, though Newton's Laws are sufficiently accurate for most aspects of daily activity.

The scientific method that has been so instrumental in advancing science requires that all scientific theories and even scientific laws at least be open to further testing. We should not be afraid to question and analyze scientific evidence; data that is valid will stand the tests.

We have the opportunity to set responsible and rigorous standards for science education in Minnesota. We should help students practice the scientific method in all areas of science, including the study of evolution - let's not encourage them to violate it.

Swenson, of St. Paul, has a bachelor's degree in elementary education with a minor in science, and a master's in counseling psychology.

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