Reports of the National Center for Science Education

Evolution: How Does It Fare in State K-12 Science Standards?

"Accountability" has been the buzzword in public education for a decade or more. As a consequence, there has been much activity in writing curriculum standards — documents that list what students are expected to know at various grade levels from kindergarten through high school. In late 1997, I was asked by the Thomas B Fordham Foundation to assess the quality of the 36 state science standards then in existence. My report was published in March 1998 (Lerner 1998a) and summarized in this journal shortly thereafter (Lerner 1998b)

Things moved fast after that. By late 1999, so many state standards had been published, revised, or rewritten that a new standards review was prepared for publication in January 2000. By that time, 49 states had science standards. The 50th state, Iowa, does not publish any of its curriculum standards.

In the course of these studies of science standards, it became clear that evolution was a touchy topic, as evidenced by the treatment to which it was subjected in not a few states. It also became clear, moreover, that I had been quite wrong in what I had written in RNCSE in 1998:
Moreover, except for the issues surrounding the teaching of evolution that arise in a relatively small number of states, the sciences do not seem to be plagued with the political-ideological infighting concerning content that characterizes some of the other areas, notably history and English literature.
Indeed, politics had impinged on instruction in most if not all subjects taught in the schools, science not excepted. This was made explicit in two recent publications which reviewed such political pressures throughout the curriculum (Gross 2000; Levitt 1999). We therefore resolved to make a special study focused on the treatment of evolution and the consequences thereof for science instruction in general. This study (Lerner 2000) was published in September 2000.

It is perhaps repeating the obvious to note that proper teaching of evolution is crucial to decent instruction in the life sciences, for which it is the central organizing principle. Readers of this journal will understand why proper teaching of evolution is so important to science instruction in general as well as to the historical sciences — biology, geology, and cosmology — in particular. With this in mind, I constructed a list of things students ought to learn about evolution as they move from the primary grades (for example, offspring are similar to but not exactly like their parents) through the middle grades (for example, variability among individuals of a species leads to differential survivability in a given environment) to the high-school grades, where a comprehensive, explicit treatment of evolution across all aspects of the biological sciences is appropriate (Gross 2000).

In responding to creationist pressures to obscure or eliminate evolution from their standards, some states have used one or more ploys. The most common are these:
  • The standards include many of the central principles of evolution — usually briefly — but the word evolution is carefully avoided. Inaccurate and misleading euphemisms such as "change over time" are used instead of the "E-word."
  • Biological evolution is simply ignored. Geological evolution, the history of the solar system, and cosmology may well be treated, often even employing the word evolution. Fossils are sometimes mentioned, but only in the context of geology, not biology.
  • Evolution of plants and animals is treated to some degree but human evolution is ignored.
  • All scientific discussions that imply an old earth or universe are deleted. Kansas is the only state to do this completely, but Mississippi, Tennessee, and West Virginia come close.
  • Creationist jargon is used. In Alabama, all textbooks are required to carry a disclaimer that calls evolution "controversial" and labels it "a theory, not a fact." The disclaimer also cites a number of other standard creationist ploys. The details of this approach are discussed below.
  • Some or all of the historical sciences are treated lightly but no attempt is made to elucidate the connections among them.
With both the requirements of good instruction and the strategies above in mind, I assembled a list of criteria that could be evaluated on a point scale. The criteria were:
  • Is the "E-word used where appropriate? (0–20 points)
  • Is biological evolution treated properly? (0–40 points)
  • Is human evolution treated? (0–10 points)
  • Is geological evolution treated? 0–20 points)
  • Is cosmology treated? (0–10 points)
  • Are the connections among the historical sciences treated? (0–10 points)
  • Is creationist jargon used? (-20–0 points)
  • Is a textbook disclaimer mandated? (-25–0 points)
Each of the 49 states (and the District of Columbia) that have science standards was thus rated and assigned a point score, which was translated into the traditional letter grades A through F. (Kansas, the only state to achieve a negative score, was awarded a disgraceful F-minus.) Table I shows the distribution of letter grades. In each category, the states are listed in the order of their scores.

Table I: Distribution of Grades For Treatment of Evolution

Number of States91576121
In the absence of such an evaluation, it would be easy — and wrong — to guess that the states treating evolution poorly are mainly in the Bible Belt. There is indeed a concentration of poor performance in those states, but the reality is more complex. North Carolina, South Carolina, and Indiana, on the one hand, have standards that treat evolution excellently, and Louisiana and Texas squeak by with very mediocre but acceptable treatments. Maine, New Hampshire, Wisconsin, and Illinois, on the other hand, have poor-to-bad standards. Good science education is not simply a geographical issue. This is important, because it is a snobbish as well as damaging misconception to shrug one's shoulders and write off the inhabitants of this or that region as incorrigible or ineducable.

The good news is that 31 states — just under one-third — achieved passing grades. But we should not be too sanguine about this. Given the abundance of educational models and the wide variety of approaches to excellence that they offer, there is no reason for any state to do less well than the 6 that achieved perfect scores and the 3 others that came close.

Fortunately, the activity in standards writing and revision has not flagged; many states are busy with improvements. Arizona and New Mexico have only recently fought off creationist attempts to remove evolution from their state standards. As is well known, the voters of Kansas have unceremoniously dumped enough creationists from their state board of education to give strong expectations that Dorothy will soon return from Oz. And there are signs of constructive activity in other poorly rated states as well. On the other hand, the most recent changes in Pennsylvania's proposed science education standards weakened the presence of evolution by introducing inappropriate qualifiers and "hedges" in several sections.

This is not to say unbridled optimism is warranted. Creationism has repeatedly waxed and waned over the United States ever since the notorious Scopes trial of 1925, and will doubtless continue to do so. In particular, the "intelligent-design" creationists are making a vigorous and well-funded effort to influence public-school science teaching at every level. To date their successes have been limited, but they seem to be gradually shouldering out the more traditional but less sophisticated young-earth creationists who, up to the present, have had much more influence. Nevertheless, most young people in the United States have a fair chance to learn biology, and by extension, the other sciences as well.

[Fordham Foundation publications cited below are available on the Internet at; single free copies may be obtained by calling the toll-free number 888-823-7474.]
By Lawrence S Lerner
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