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Science Standards Draw Fire From Ed. Leader in Kentucky Senate

The same day Rhode Island became the first state to adopt the Next Generation Science Standards, the document got what looks to be a warning shot across the bow from the chairman of the Kentucky Senate education committee. In particular, the Republican lawmaker, elected in 2010, raised concerns about the handling of evolution and climate change in the standards.

As we've noted before, those two issues have long been seen as potential political challenges for the science standards, which were developed by 26 "lead state partners" (including Kentucky) in collaboration with several national organizations. The standards, and the science behind them, were guided by a framework developed by a panel of experts in science and science education convened by the congressionally-chartered National Research Council.

In his Op-Ed, published yesterday in the Courier-Journal newspaper of Louisville, Sen. Mike Wilson questioned elements of how both evolution and climate change are handled.

"As chairman of the education committee, ... I would ask that these requirements be thoroughly and impartially reviewed and vetted," he writes. "Political correctness bears watching and should never be the arbiter of learning."

On climate change, Sen. Wilson singles out two statements from the Next Generation Science Standards (drawn directly from the NRC framework), including one that says: "Human activities, such as release of greenhouse gases from burning fossil fuels, are major factors in the current rise in Earth's mean surface temperature."

He said this statement appears to be drawn from the U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. "There are those in the scientific field who question the beliefs of [that panel]," he writes. Wilson, in fact, questions whether climate change is even occurring.

The most recent of the periodic assessment reports from the IPCC, published in 2007, said evidence of global warming, and resultant sea and ocean temperatures and rising sea levels, is "unequivocal." It also says "there is very high confidence that the net effect of human activities" over the last few hundred years has been one of warming. The IPCC is an intergovernmental scientific body, with thousands of scientists and other experts writing and reviewing its reports.

Meanwhile, a 2011 NRC report (not connected to the science standards) sums up the evidence on climate change this way: "Climate change is occurring, is very likely caused primarily by the emission of greenhouse gases from human activities, and poses significant risks for a range of human and natural systems."

It is worth noting that the language in the science standards, again taken from the NRC standards framework, does not include the "very likely" caveat with regard to human activities.

Wilson also raises questions about the science behind evolution. The NRC framework, and the standards, make clear that "evolution and its underlying genetic mechanisms of inheritance and variability are key to understanding both the unity and the diversity of life on Earth." The framework document notes: "Biological evolution is supported by extensive scientific evidence ranging from the fossil record to genetic relationships among species."

Wilson writes: "Standards should encourage teachers to create and foster an environment that promotes critical-thinking skills, logical analysis, and open and objective discussion of the advantages and disadvantages of multiple theories."

It remains to be seen what influence Sen. Wilson will have with the state board of education in Kentucky. The board is expected to vote on provisional adoption of the standards in June.

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