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Kan. officials, professor debate science standards

10/17/2012

By JOHN HANNA

By JOHN HANNA

Associated Press

TOPEKA, Kan. (AP) -- A veteran biology professor described public school science standards being drafted by Kansas and other states as weak, telling education officials Tuesday that they largely ignore important subjects such as zoology and human anatomy.

John Richard Schrock, a biology professor at Emporia State University, said the standards being drafted concentrate too much on ecology, evolution and molecular biology. He said adopting such guidelines in Kansas is likely to prevent students from learning enough about zoology, human anatomy, botany and microbiology.

Kansas and 25 other states are working with the National Research Council on common standards for possible adoption in their public schools, and Kansas officials involved in writing the guidelines contend the goal is to concentrate on core scientific concepts. Schrock aired his criticism during a public-comment session before the State Board of Education, and officials involved in writing the standards responded during a monthly update for the board on their work.

Past work on science standards in Kansas has been overshadowed by debates about how evolution should be taught. The state had five sets of standards in eight years starting in 1999, as evolution skeptics gained and lost state board majorities in elections. The current, evolution-friendly standards were adopted by the board in 2007, but state law requires them to be updated.

Schrock, who's taught biology at Emporia State since 1986 and is a former chairman of its biology department, favors evolution-friendly standards, but he's also long argued that the state and U.S. should require students to take more science courses and impose detailed standards.

"You can't solve a chess problem if you don't how to play chess, and you can't repair a car if you don't know how a car works," he said during an interview. "This promotes science stupidity."

But Matt Krehbiel, the Kansas Department of Education official overseeing the state's work on the standards, said Schrock's criticism isn't justified. He said the standards won't preclude schools from teaching different scientific subjects but will promote a deeper understanding of core concepts.

A first draft of the proposed standards became public in May, and another draft is expected to be released in November. Officials expect the Kansas board to consider adopting them early next year.

John Popp, the Great Bend school district's curriculum and instruction director and co-chairman of a Kansas committee working on the standards, said the state has in the past made a point of covering so much content in its academic standards that it struggled to get students to "think deeply."

"We have skimmed across the surface," he told the board. "The whole idea of going deep versus going broad is a big shift for our teachers."

Kansas uses its academic standards to develop annual, standardized tests for students, using their scores to assess how well schools are teaching. Schrock said the "bite" from the new standards will come in testing.

"Those test questions will be used to drive the curriculum in the school," Schrock said.

Schrock has raised similar issues previously, most notably in 2005, when a conservative-led board adopted science standards incorporating language promoted by evolution skeptics. The professor, though critical of that language, found an ally in one of its backers in voicing concerns about a lack of material in the guidelines about zoology, botany and human anatomy.

And on Tuesday, board member Ken Willard, a Hutchinson Republican, and another past evolution skeptic, was receptive enough to Schrock's criticism to press Krehbiel and Popp about it, particularly on plant and animal science.

"Those would seem to be pretty important things to an agricultural-economy state," Willard said.

Popp said he wouldn't endorse standards if he felt they shorted such subjects. Krehbiel said people should reserve judgment until they see the next draft of the standards.

And board Chairman David Dennis, a Wichita Republican, said, "We're moving in the right direction."

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