After past sparring over hot-button topics like evolution and climate change, Utah Board of Education gives go-ahead to draft new science standards

(Al Hartmann | Tribune file photo) Hector Anguino peers through a microscope during a science competition at Salt Lake Center for Science Education. The Utah Board of Education gave the go ahead on Thursday to the drafting of new science curriculum standards.

The Utah State Board of Education greenlit plans Thursday to begin drafting new school science standards, a process likely to touch on divisive issues like climate change and evolution.

The state last approved new middle school science standards in 2015, which were based partially on the Next Generation Science Standards, a series of education benchmarks developed by a consortium of national experts.

But what is taught in Utah classrooms for grades kindergarten through five, and nine through twelve was unaffected by that change, and those guidelines for science curricula remain between seven and 15 years old.

After months of pleading by Utah science educators to cohere science standards for all grade levels, the board voted in November to charge a State Standards Review Committee, comprised of parents and educators, to study and recommend elementary and high school science curriculums.

Board members also requested in March that the committee include a “crosswalk” breakdown directly comparing elements of the current curriculum compares to NGSS.

The state school board approved that panel’s recommendations Thursday, which included crafting science standards using NGSS as a primary resource. A writing committee will now work to draft the new science standards for the elementary and high schools.

Public review and feedback on the middle school standards led to multiple drafts before the school board approved a final version.

Board member Alisa Ellis voted against accepting committee recommendations Thursday, saying she could not support the standards on principle.

“I believe that education is best served when it’s decentralized,” Ellis said. “It may not be as efficient and as effective, but I believe it’s a very powerful thing.”

Ellis and committee members have the same goal of setting students up to excel, she said, but different ideas on how best to achieve it.

“Yes, the standards are old, they’re outdated, but I’m failing to see how Next Generation Science Standards solves that,” she said.

Despite casting the lone nay vote, Ellis said she was happy the board approved her amendment asking the writing committee also look at other science standards besides NGSS, she said.

Many committee members attended the board’s meeting Thursday, speaking during public comment in support of NGSS. Some said they believed the middle school science curriculum changes positively fostered critical thinking in students, over recitation of facts.

Prior debates on science standards delayed adoption of the 2015 standards, amid criticism from some that they promote liberal and secular viewpoints on issues such as climate change and evolution.

Ellis said in November she suspected Utah’s review of science standards might be driven by political rather than educational values.

“These national science standards, they have little to do with science and a lot to do with what is politically expedient,” she said at the time. “There’s a heavy emphasis on global warming. There’s a heavy emphasis on evolution as a fact and not a theory.”

Board member Lisa Cummins said Thursday there were parts of NGSS that she liked and parts that concerned her. She asked that standards be crafted in a way that “showcases both sides of the argument,” she said.

Board members and the public will have the opportunity to suggest revisions before any science standards are formally considered for adoption.