U.S. Evolution Science Standards

While evolution is the central unifying theme of biology, you would not know it by reading the science standards in the U.S.  Two of the most important macroevolutionary concepts—evidence in support of macroevolution and evolutionary history—are severely neglected in the majority of U.S. states.   The approach of the below survey will be to focus on these two neglected aspects of evolution and survey how the topics are treated with the standards in the US.  These topics are distinct from natural selection, the most notable mechanism which drives it, which is both covered by states to a considerable degree and not typically questioned in the cultural debate about evolution that the US finds itself in.

The graphs and tables represent how many states cover different macroevolutionary topics at any point in their K-12 science standards.

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Evolution Evidence Standards

Far and away the most popular evolution evidence topic that was covered within the standards was the fossil record; 46 states had standards that referenced fossils.   Read another way, however, 4 states never touch upon fossils in their biological standards.  What was encouraging about surveying these standards was that several of the states that did cover the subject began in first or second grade and revisited the subject multiple times through middle and high school (California is an example).  Unfortunately, the standards often read vaguely and only refer to evolution being supported by “fossil evidence” and speaking nothing to the scope, sequence, specific examples, intermediate fossils, or progression of the fossils (Delaware is an example).  The second most commonly cited evidence in US science standards was structural homology at 31 states (category includes anatomical and cell structure similarities).  25 of the states mention genetic homology and another 25 cite the less specific biochemical/biomolecular homology (some states cite both, like Indiana).  One surprising result was the number of states that covered embryological development as evidence in support of evolution–22.  Embryological development examples can often be difficult to explain to students since the topic is so foreign and depiction is often problematic since anatomical features are often so amorphous early in development.  These embryological visualization difficulties result in the use of cartoon diagrams over pictures, which often hold less weight to skeptical students.  It is disappointing how infrequently states address observed examples of evolution (10 states covered this topic in their standards), vestigial structures (3 states), pseudo genes/atavistic genes (0 states), and biogeography (4 states).  Not only were some of the most persuasive evidences omitted but also so were the most medically relevant—bacterial and viral evolution.

Further critiques could be made of the language found in these standards. This is one of the clearer examples of content compromises made during committee writing and approval of the standards.  The use of words such as ‘critique’ (Mississippi) and ‘evaluate’ (Missouri) in reference to how evolution evidence should be handled seem to be inserted to allow the liberty for creationist students and possibly even teachers to have opportunity to voice their dissent of evolution.   A similar objection can be raised towards Hawaii’s direct address of divine creation in their standards glossary.

Evolutionary History Standards

Even more disappointing was the extent which evolutionary history was covered within the standards.  30 states never provide an overview of the history of life, 27 never cover extinction, all 50 of them avoid synapomorphies, 44 never cover tree thinking, 47 never cover genetic molecular clocks, and 46 completely avoid the topic of human evolution.  These are glaring and grave deficiencies with the U.S. that are robbing our students of the ability to place themselves and all life within the larger pageantry of evolution’s history.

Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS)

No discussion would be complete without an address of the coming the Next Generation Science Standards put out by a collective of 26 states (Lead State Partners, 2013).  At the time of this writing, 5 states have adopted the standards and many more are in the process of approving them within their states (Moello, 2013)  This means that major changes are imminent for the majority of states.  By in large, this is a very positive move since some of the lowest ranking states (like West Virginia) are poised to soon adopt the new standards.  This will serve as a vast improvement in content and organization over what is currently held by those adopting states.  That said, many deficiencies still exist with the standards.  NGSS addresses 3 evolution evidence topics out of the 9 used in this study and only 2 out 7 evolutionary history topics.

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Conclusion

There is no consensus between states on what constitutes the evidence in support of evolution.  Many states completely ignore the topic or gloss over it with vague references to fossils and genes.  If that wasn’t bad enough, neither are our students hearing the history of life on Earth.  They are not being taught the wonders of deep time that give the scaffolding necessary for further understanding of life both past and present.  Only 42% of states cover the topic at all and often only in passing with little detail about major evolutionary breakthroughs, epochs, and extinction events.  A dismal 8% of states cover the topic of human evolution–our most personal story.

Catley (2006) said it best:

Increasingly, issues of bioethics, human origins, cloning, conservation, bioengineered food stuffs, etc. are being cast in a light that requires an understanding of macroevolutionary events and the history of life on the planet. To deny our students access to this debate is to deny the call for universal science literacy. It is widely accepted that biology will be the “science of the 21st century.” Whether they are producers or consumers of this knowledge, our students will not be able to participate fully in society without an understanding of the mechanisms that underpin and explain all of biology. (p.  775)

Our students deserve the best science standards possible and by almost any metric they are not getting it.  Even if no debate existed concerning evolution’s validity, students deserve to understand the evidence in support of evolution and a better understanding of evolution’s course and history so as to understand biology as a whole.  These are not auxiliary topics and they merit more time than a cursory address or certainly a complete omission.  Far from being feared they should be embraced in the classroom because the topics often can inspire students to intrigue and spur new questions in the heads of thoughtful students.  We owe it to our students to not just provide them with a better understanding of biology’s history but also to tell them of their own evolutionary story.

Two highly recommended research articles on this topic:

Catley, K. M. (2006). Darwin’s missing link—a novel paradigm for evolution education. Science Education90(5), 767-783.

Padian, K. (2010). How to win the evolution war: teach macroevolution!.Evolution: Education and Outreach3(2), 206-214.

State Science Standards References:

Next Generation Science Standards (utilized by Kansas, Kentucky, Rhode Island, Maryland, and Vermont at the time of this writing on August 21, 2013)
DCI Arrangements of Standards. Next Generation Science Standards. Retrieved August 15, 2013 from http://www.nextgenscience.org/search-standards-dci?field_idea_tid%5B%5D=119

Alabama:
Browse Alabama Content Standards. Alabama Learning Exchange. Retrieved August 15, 2013 from http://alex.state.al.us/browseallStand.php

Alaska:
Alaska Standards. Alaska Department of Education & Early DevelopmentI. Retrieved August 15, 2013 from http://www.eed.state.ak.us/standards/pdf/standards.pdf

Arizona:
The Science Standard Articulated by Grade Level. Arizona Department of Education. Retrieved August 15, 2013 from http://www.azed.gov/standards-practices/science-standard/

Arkansas:
Science. Arkansas Department of Education. Retrieved August 15, 2013 from http://www.arkansased.org/divisions/learning-services/curriculum-and-instruction/frameworks/curriculum_categories/science

California:
Science Content Standards for California Public Schools. California Department of Education. Retrieved August 15, 2013 from http://www.cde.ca.gov/be/st/ss/documents/sciencestnd.pdf

Colorado:
Science – State Standards. Colorado Department of Education. Retrieved August 15, 2013 from http://www.cde.state.co.us/coscience/statestandards

Connecticut:
Science. Connecticut State Department of Education. Retrieved August 15, 2013 from http://www.sde.ct.gov/sde/cwp/view.asp?a=2618&q=320890

Delaware:
Science. State of Delaware. Retrieved August 15, 2013 from http://www.doe.k12.de.us/infosuites/staff/ci/content_areas/science.shtml

District of Columbia:
Learning Standards for Grades Pre-K-8. District of Columbia Public Schools. Retrieved August 15, 2013 from http://dc.gov/DCPS/In+the+Classroom/What+Students+Are+Learning/Learning+Standards+for+Grades+Pre-K-8

Florida:
Standards. Cpalms – Florida’s Platform for Educators. Retrieved August 15, 2013 from http://www.cpalms.org/Standards/FLStandardSearch.aspx

Georgia:
Science. Georgia Department of Education. Retrieved August 15, 2013 from https://www.georgiastandards.org/Standards/pages/BrowseStandards/ScienceStandards.aspx

Hawaii:
Standards Toolkit. Hawaii State Department of Education. Retrieved August 15, 2013 from http://standardstoolkit.k12.hi.us/

Idaho:
Science Content Standards. Idaho State Department of Education. Retrieved August 15, 2013 from
http://www.sde.idaho.gov/site/content_standards/science_standards.htm

Illinois:
Illinois Learning Standards. Illinois State Board of Education. Retrieved August 15, 2013 from http://www.isbe.state.il.us/ils/science/standards.htm

Indiana
Indiana Standards. Learning Connection. Retrieved August 15, 2013 from https://learningconnection.doe.in.gov/Standards/Standards.aspx?st=evolution&sub=28&gl=41&c=0&stid=0

Iowa
Iowa Core Science. Iowa Department of Education. Retrieved August 15, 2013 from
http://www.educateiowa.gov/index.php?option=com_content&id=2330&Itemid=4342

Louisiana:
Academic Standards + Grade Level Expectations. Louisiana Department of Education. Retrieved August 15, 2013 from http://www.louisianabelieves.com/resources/library/academic-standards

Maine:
Science Standards. Maine Department of Education. Retrieved August 15, 2013 from http://www.maine.gov/education/lres/scitech/natlstandards.html

Maryland:
Teaching and Learning. School Improvement in Maryland. Retrieved August 15, 2013 from http://mdk12.org/instruction/curriculum/science/

Massachusetts:
Massachusetts Curriculum Framework. Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education. Retrieved August 15, 2013 from http://www.doe.mass.edu/frameworks/current.html

Michigan:
Welcome. Michigan Department of Education. Retrieved August 15, 2013 from http://www.michigan.gov/mde/0,4615,7-140-28753_64839_38684_28760—,00.html

Minnesota:
K-12 Academic Standards. Minnesota Department of Education. Retrieved August 15, 2013 from http://education.state.mn.us/MDE/EdExc/StanCurri/K-12AcademicStandards/

Mississippi:
2010 Mississippi Science Framework. Mississippi Department of Education. Retrieved August 15, 2013 from http://www.mde.k12.ms.us/docs/curriculum-and-instructions-library/2010-science-framework.pdf?sfvrsn=4

Missouri:
Grade- and Course-Level Expectations. Missouri Department of Elementary & Secondary Education. Retrieved August 15, 2013 from http://dese.mo.gov/divimprove/curriculum/GLE/

Montana:
Montana Instructional Alignment – Science. Montana Office of Public Instruction. Retrieved August 15, 2013 from http://opi.mt.gov/pdf/standards/09ScienceELE.pdf

Nebraska
Nebraska Science Standards. Nebraska Department of Education. Retrieved August 15, 2013 from http://www.education.ne.gov/science/Documents/ArticulatedScienceSinWord.pdf

Nevada:
Science Education in Nevada. Department of Education. Retrieved August 15, 2013 from http://www.doe.nv.gov/APAC_Science/

New Hampshire:
K-12 Science Literacy New Hampshire Curriculum Framework. New Hampshire Department of Education. Retrieved August 15, 2013 from http://www.education.nh.gov/instruction/curriculum/science/documents/framework.pdf

New Jersey:
Core Curriculum Content Standards. State of New Jersey Department of Education. Retrieved August 15, 2013 from http://www.state.nj.us/education/cccs/standards/5/5-3.htm

New Mexico:
Math and Science Bureau New Mexico Science Standards. New Mexico Public Education Department. Retrieved August 15, 2013 from http://www.ped.state.nm.us/mathscience/scienceStandards.html

New York:
Science Learning Standards and Core Curriculum. New York State Education Department. Retrieved August 15, 2013 from http://www.p12.nysed.gov/ciai/mst/scirg.html

North Carolina:
NC Essential Standards. Public Schools of North Carolina. Retrieved August 15, 2013 from http://www.ncpublicschools.org/acre/standards/new-standards/#science

North Dakota:
Content Standards. ND Department of Public Instruction. Retrieved August 15, 2013 from http://www.dpi.state.nd.us/standard/content.shtm

Ohio:
Science. Ohio Department of Education. Retrieved August 15, 2013 from http://education.ohio.gov/Topics/Academic-Content-Standards/Science

Oklahoma:
Priority Academic Student Skill. Oklahoma State Department of Education. Retrieved August 15, 2013 from http://ok.gov/sde/sites/ok.gov.sde/files/C3%20PASS%20sci.pdf

Oregon:
Science – Standards. Oregon Department of Education. Retrieved August 15, 2013 http://www.ode.state.or.us/search/page/?id=1577

Pennsylvania:
Standards Download. Pennsylvania Department of Education. Retrieved August 15, 2013 http://www.pdesas.org/standard/standardsdownloads

South Carolina:
Science. South Carolina State Department of Education. Retrieved August 15, 2013  http://ed.sc.gov/agency/se/Instructional-Practices-and-Evaluations/Science.cfm

South Dakota:
Content Standards. South Dakota Department of Education. Retrieved August 15, 2013 http://doe.sd.gov/contentstandards/

Tennessee:
Science. Tennessee Department of Education. Retrieved August 15, 2013  http://state.tn.us/education/ci/sci/

Texas:
Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills. Texas Education Agency. Retrieved August 15, 2013  http://www.tea.state.tx.us/index2.aspx?id=6148

Utah:
K-12 Core Curriculum. Utah Education Network. Retrieved August 15, 2013   http://www.uen.org/core/science/

Vermont:
Programs and Services. Vermont Agency of Education. Retrieved August 15, 2013   http://education.vermont.gov/new/html/pgm_curriculum/science/gle.html

Virginia:
Standards of Learning Documents for Science. Virginia Department of Education. Retrieved August 15, 2013   http://www.doe.virginia.gov/testing/sol/standards_docs/science/

Washington:
Science. State of Washington Office Of Superintendent of Public Instruction. Retrieved August 15, 2013   http://www.k12.wa.us/science/pubdocs/WAScienceStandards.pdf

West Virginia:
CSOs – Content Standards and Objectives Policies. West Virginia Department of Education. Retrieved August 15, 2013 from http://wvde.state.wv.us/policies/csos.html

Wisconsin:
Wisconsin’s Model Academic Standards for Science. Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction. Retrieved August 15, 2013 from http://dpi.wi.gov/stn_sciintro

Wyoming:
Wyoming Science Content and Performance Standards. Wyoming Department of Education. Retrieved August 15, 2013 from http://edu.wyoming.gov/sf-docs/publications/Standards_2008_Science_PDF.pdf

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