Evolution and climate change already at issue in new Utah school science standards that haven’t been written yet

The Utah Board of Education launched a review on Thursday, which could result in updates to the content taught to elementary and high school students.

(Al Hartmann | Tribune file photo) Hector Anguino counts Paramecium from a glass slide, part of a national science competition in biology class at Salt Lake Center for Science Education.

Hot-button issues of evolution and climate change boiled to the surface Thursday as the state Board of Education took up the question of updating science-related instructional standards for many Utah students.

After months of pleading by the state’s science educators, the school board voted Thursday afternoon to begin a review — and potential update — to those science-related content standards for elementary and high school grade levels.

The board last approved new middle school science standards in 2015, with an added emphasis on engineering and hands-on learning. But what is taught for grades kindergarten through five, and nine through twelve was unaffected by that change, and those guidelines remain between seven and 15 years old.

“I believe our students should be exposed to the most current and up-to-date facts,” said board member Kathleen Riebe. “We need to stay relevant in our education. Our kids are learning things almost faster than we are.”

But Thursday’s debate resurfaced many of the same concerns that delayed adoption of the 2015 standards, which were criticized as promoting liberal and secular viewpoints on climate change and evolution.

School board vice-chairwoman Alisa Ellis said she had little faith that staff would conduct an objective review of Utah’s science standards. The end result, Ellis speculated, would be a push to extend national trends into elementary and high school classrooms.

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

And board member Lisa Cummins encouraged her colleagues to be aware of information that is taught to children “contrary to beliefs.”

“I am not in favor of furthering an agenda,” Cummins said, “but maybe just teaching theory and letting both sides of the argument come out — whether it‘s intelligent design or the Darwin origin.”

The initial draft for 2015’s middle school update was largely based on the Next Generation Science Standards, a series of educational benchmarks developed by a consortium of national experts. Public review and feedback led to multiple revisions before the school board approved a final version.

Despite those revisions, four board members opposed adopting the middle school standards. And then-member Stan Lockhart attempted to attach introductory language stating that students are taught scientific theories and not proven facts.

“I actually don’t agree with some of the theories that are being taught,” Lockhart said at the time.

Diana Suddreth, the board’s director of teaching and learning, said Thursday that the first step in updating standards is creation of a review panel, which would include parent nominees submitted by the Utah House speaker and Utah Senate president.

That panel can generate recommended changes, Suddreth said, or determine that Utah’s current standards are sufficient. Any alterations would require school board approval.

“No writing has happened,” she said. “So we don‘t know what the new standards would contain.”

And school board member Linda Hansen emphasized that the board is not required to wholly approve or reject recommendations. Instead, she said, they can alter or remove portions at will.

“It’s all up to us,” Hansen said. “These are our standards. We can do them the way we want to do them.”

For the last several school board meetings, science educators have asked the board to continue the work of updating Utah science education by reviewing elementary and high school standards.

On Thursday, Jessica Dwyer told the board that middle school classrooms have improved by shifting the focus from content memorization to experimentation and discovery. Dwyer is an academic program manager with the University of Utah’s Center for Science and Mathematics Education.

“The things that I’m seeing in classrooms in middle schools as teachers are implementing the new standards is just inspiring,” Dwyer said.

Ellis said it is great that middle school students are learning more practical and applied science. But she added that elementary and high school teachers are free to follow that lead under the existing guidelines.

“You don‘t need us to revise science standards to be able to put that in place,” she said.

Cummins added that in subjects like science and history, accuracy should take precedent over what is in vogue.

“Relevant and current are great,” she said. “But truth also needs to prevail as well, and in a lot of cases truth is not prevailing.”

Joining Ellis and Cummins in opposing the review were board members Scott Neilson and Michelle Boulter.

Ellis and Cummins also voted against a similar review of health education standards in July, over concerns that an update might lead to comprehensive sex education in Utah schools.