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State Board of Education approves new standards for science instruction

These standards increase future references to evolution, drawing criticism and support

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"Welcome to your new and improve classrooms." Illustration published on Tuesday, Nov. 20, 2018.

The Arizona State Board of Education approved new science standards that include more teachings on evolution for public schools during a state board meeting on Oct. 22. 

During the approval process, the new standards faced some criticism from Diane Douglas, the current superintendent who will be replaced by superintendent elect Kathy Hoffman in January 2019.

Stefan Swiat, the communications officer for the Arizona Department of Education, said the board approved the standards in a vote of 6-4, which will roll out in phases starting in the next school year. 

"It is about time that the department takes a look at all of those standards and refreshes them and takes a good hard look at what they wanted to do," he said.

The Arizona Science Teachers Association contributed significantly to the support and composition of the new standards.

Sara Torres, the executive director for ASTA, wasn't involved in the writing of the new standards right away but started working on them with a community member in October 2017. 

“It's never a done process, and I think that's what we always have to remember," she said. "These are working documents, these new standards are a major improvement from what we have had.”

In regard to the criticisms from the superintendent, Torres said she wishes Douglas would have given more specific feedback.

"Her feedback of, 'let's put vocabulary in there,' that's not standards,” she said. “When we look at the research, at the things that students should know and be able to do, the standards are very well aligned.”

Torres said both students and teachers will benefit from these new standards.

“Some aspects of content will be different, but more importantly is this shift to a different type of instruction,” she said. “The old standards were a checklist and the old standards were created for a multiple choice test so you know the definition, not really applying it to anything else.”

Torres said assessments were not the focus when writing the new standards but rather the students' deeper understanding of the curriculum. 

“The shift of instruction will be different and our hope is that the way science is taught is different — it's more about the understanding so students can be curious and figure out the natural phenomena," she said. “I think that every student deserves a well-rounded education which includes science education.” 

Frank Bungartz, herbarium research specialist and curator of lichens and digital data at ASU, said he is happy the new standards were approved for the sake of his seven year-old daughter and other students.

“I never perceived biology and evolution and religion as any conflict," he said. "I do believe in Christian values, but I still don’t see why there's any conflict in evolution and the Bible.”

Bungartz is from Germany and said that when he completed his Ph.D. at ASU, he found it bizarre that some people believe biology can be taught without teaching evolution.

"Essentially, you can’t teach biology without the principle of evolution; it would be like teaching chemistry without atoms,” he said. “We now know on the molecular level how evolution works in real time and it’s a really important principle that needs to be taught.” 

Melissa Wilson Sayres, assistant professor at the School of Life Sciences, said she is pleased that the new standards were approved and reference evolution more.

“I think it's a really positive thing that the standards include students' understanding evolution," she said. "I think it would have been really dangerous to remove that as a standard for Arizona students. It would hinder them and I think removing that would put our students at a disadvantage.”

Wilson Sayres said she has experienced firsthand the conflict between theology and evolutionary principles and it is a subject she is very passionate about.

"I teach evolution every year, I want my students to understand that there doesn’t have to be a conflict between religion and evolution,” she said. “I work really hard to be accessible and one of the things we talk about are the differences between the nature of science and philosophy and religion.”

However, Wilson Sayres said the conflict between religion and evolution isn't necessary.

“There tends to be a perception of this huge conflict between religion and evolution, and it's because people fail to understand the importance of understanding evolution," she said. "It shouldn’t be the 'e-word,' it shouldn’t be an unmentionable thing.”

Clarification: This story has been updated to clarify the governing body that approved the new standards.

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