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State flunks evolution test
Education reform group cites 'notorious' disclaimer found in biology
By BRETT DAVIS
Huntsville Times Washington Correspondent
WASHINGTON - Seventy-five years after the celebrated Scopes ''monkey trial''
over the teaching of evolution, 19 states, including Alabama, do a ''weak to
reprehensible'' job of setting standards for such teaching, according to a
Alabama's biology textbook inserts arguing that evolution is ''theory, not
fact,'' helped earn the state an F from an education reform group that looked
at state standards regarding evolution. Those state standards can affect
local lesson plans or textbook choices.
The report was recently published in the journal Nature and then released in
a longer form at a daylong symposium Tuesday at the American Association for
the Advancement of Science.
Lawrence Lerner, who wrote the report for the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation,
lamented what he called ''the notorious Alabama disclaimer . . . which says,
'Everything you're about to read is nonsense.' ''
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Lerner is professor emeritus at California State University, Long Beach's College of Natural Sciences and Mathematics. While the report says religious beliefs must be respected, he had no kind words for those who try to teach biblical theories of creation in the classroom. ''Creationists do not make contributions to the progress of science,'' Lerner said.
Many states, including Alabama, avoid use of what Lerner jokingly called the ''E-word,'' or ''the science that dare not speak its name,'' even though evolution is the guiding principle behind modern biology.
Kansas went so far as to eliminate references to evolution or anything smacking of it, including the concept of radioactive decay, earning the state the lone F-minus in the report.
Alabama adopted its textbook insert five years ago and remains the only state that uses such an insert. Oklahoma's school board sought to follow suit, but the state's attorney general blocked the move.
The issue is still alive in Alabama state politics. Judge Roy Moore, who hangs the Ten Commandments on his Gadsden courthouse wall and is running for chief justice of the state Supreme Court, recently told a Republican group that all origin theories, including creationism, should be taught in schools.
Lerner said some states seem to be recognizing evolution again. Some members of the Kansas school board who opposed teaching evolution lost primary elections in August, and the report notes that Kansas will likely move to a more science-based curriculum.
Lerner also noted that Alabama's standards are being rewritten, and said he hopes the disclaimer insert will be dumped.
Joe Morton, Alabama's deputy state superintendent of education, said the state is indeed in its usual six-year rewrite of standards. But Morton said it's too soon to say if the inserts, which are put in biology texts, will stay or go.
''That won't be addressed . . . until we adopt textbooks, which is at least over a year away,'' Morton said.
He disputed Lerner's description of the insert, saying it's not a disclaimer and doesn't change the wording of the textbooks themselves, which include evolution.
''We don't White-Out words, or cut and paste, or cut out pages," Morton said. "It's the textbook, as published by the textbook company. It would probably be the same kinds of textbook that would be used in California, that got an A'' on the report.
The eight-paragraph insert asks students to ponder several questions, including ''Why have no new major groups of living things appeared in the fossil record for a long time?'' and ''Why do major groups of plants and animals have no transitional forms in the fossil record?''
Morton said there's nothing wrong with the insert.
''It gets people to think of many points of view on a topic, and I think that's the intent, to just keep an open mind about what you are studying,'' Morton said.
Lerner's report argues the insert ''cites many of the most common and most thoroughly discredited arguments used by creationists in objecting to evolution.''
Many of the states the group that received bad grades on teaching evolution were in the Southeast. The report notes ''the states that find it necessary to wrestle with the teaching of evolution are largely . . . those having substantial populations of Protestant evangelicals.''
Tennessee, Mississippi, Georgia and Florida also got F's. However, Lerner noted that there were plenty of bad grades in other parts of the country, and two Southern states, North Carolina and South Carolina, received A's.
Lerner said a lackluster teaching of evolution usually accompanies a poor teaching of science in general.
''They're not just picking on evolution,'' Lerner said.
Lisa Keegan, Arizona's superintendent of public instruction, said she has seen ''obnoxious'' behavior on both sides of the evolution issue.
Some anti-evolutionists are loud in their opposition, but ''there is also a strong anti-religious bias'' among those who support the teaching of evolution, Keegan said, ''and it needs to be spoken.''
She said she's a Christian who believes in a creator, but that doesn't affect her belief in science and in evolution. She also said there's no way to reach a compromise between scientists and hardcore anti-evolutionists.
''It must be won,'' she said.
Keegan and Chester Finn Jr., president of the Thomas Fordham Foundation, not only support the teaching of evolution, they're also Republican Party activists.
Finn, a former assistant secretary of education under Reagan, touted George W. Bush's education plan at the GOP National Convention in Philadelphia, where he spoke to Alabama's delegation.
Finn and Keegan agreed that their defense of evolution sometimes puts them at odds with fellow Republicans, who are sometimes among the Protestant evangelicals fighting the teaching of evolution.
''It's possible to have extremely different allies on different issues,'' Finn said.
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