GOP lawmakers question standards for teaching evolution in Kentucky

lblackford@herald-leader.comAugust 14, 2012 

Kentucky Sen. David Givens, R-Greensburg

PHOTO COURTESY OF LEGISLATIVE RESEARCH COMMISSION

Kentucky's Senate Republicans pushed successfully in 2009 to tie the state's testing program to national education standards, but three years later, they're questioning the results.

Several GOP lawmakers questioned new proposed student standards and tests that delve deeply into biological evolution during a Monday meeting of the Interim Joint Committee on Education.

In an exchange with officials from ACT, the company that prepares Kentucky's new state testing program, those lawmakers discussed whether evolution was a fact and whether the biblical account of creationism also should be taught in Kentucky classrooms.

"I would hope that creationism is presented as a theory in the classroom, in a science classroom, alongside evolution," Sen. David Givens, R-Greensburg, said Tuesday in an interview.

The new requirements — college-readiness testing, end-of-course exams and more national norms — are part of Senate Bill 1, a 2009 bill developed and pushed by Senate Republicans to marry Kentucky's testing program to national standards for better comparisons of student success.

"Republicans did want the end-of-course tests tied to national norms; now they're upset because when ACT surveyed biology professors across the nation, they said students have to have a thorough knowledge of evolution to do well in college biology courses," said Rep. Carl Rollins, D-Midway, chairman of the House Education Committee.

Givens said he and other legislators have been contacted by a number of educators with concerns about Kentucky's proposed new science standards, which are tied to ACT testing and are scheduled to be adopted this fall.

"I think we are very committed to being able to take Kentucky students and put them on a report card beside students across the nation," Givens said. "We're simply saying to the ACT people we don't want what is a theory to be taught as a fact in such a way it may damage students' ability to do critical thinking."

Givens said he asked the ACT representatives about possibly returning to a test personalized for Kentucky, but he was told that option was very expensive and time-consuming.

ACT vice president Ginger Hopkins, who appeared at Monday's meeting, did not immediately return calls seeking comment Tuesday.

Another committee member, Rep. Ben Waide, R-Madisonville, said he had a problem with evolution being an important part of biology standards.

"The theory of evolution is a theory, and essentially the theory of evolution is not science — Darwin made it up," Waide said. "My objection is they should ensure whatever scientific material is being put forth as a standard should at least stand up to scientific method. Under the most rudimentary, basic scientific examination, the theory of evolution has never stood up to scientific scrutiny."

Givens said he was satisfied with the response by ACT officials and state Education Commissioner Terry Holliday that evolution was being taught as a theory.

State and federal courts have ruled that creationism is a belief, not science, and therefore should not be taught in science classrooms, but instead in comparative religion classes, Holliday said.

"I think the key is we could debate the science of this forever, but we hope our kids understand the theories behind evolution," he said. "We think our kids need to be critical thinkers to be able to reason between the two."

Last year, Holliday wrote a much-publicized letter to Hart County school superintendent Ricky Line, who complained that the new standards did not identify evolution as a theory.

"Referring to biological evolution as a theory for the purpose of contesting it would be counterproductive, since scientists only grant the status of theory to well-tested ideas," Holliday wrote.

Line said Tuesday that he still hadn't seen any change to the standards.

"When it says evolution as if there is no other option, then over time our students are going to assume that is the only option when there are other options out there," Line said.

The proposed science standards would require students to complete such tasks as:

■ Explain the biological definition of evolution.

■ Differentiate among chemical evolution, organic evolution and the evolutionary steps along the way to aerobic heterotrophs and photosynthetic autotrophs.

■ Discuss Darwin's principle of survival of the fittest and explain what Darwin meant by natural selection.

Vincent Cassone, chairman of the University of Kentucky biology department, served on the committee that developed the standards.

"The theory of evolution is the fundamental backbone of all biological research," he said. "There is more evidence for evolution than there is for the theory of gravity, than the idea that things are made up of atoms, or Einstein's theory of relativity. It is the finest scientific theory ever devised."

David Helm, president of the Kentucky Science Teachers Association, declined to comment, other than the official statement of the national group, which says:

"The National Science Teachers Association (NSTA) strongly supports the position that evolution is a major unifying concept in science and should be included in the K-12 science education frameworks and curricula ... NSTA also recognizes that evolution has not been emphasized in science curricula in a manner commensurate to its importance because of official policies, intimidation of science teachers, the general public's misunderstanding of evolutionary theory, and a century of controversy. In addition, teachers are being pressured to introduce creationism, 'creation science,' and other nonscientific views, which are intended to weaken or eliminate the teaching of evolution."

Linda B. Blackford: (859) 231-1359Twitter: @lbblackford

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