Florida gets an F in science

The state's K-12 standards are "thin," "disappointing" and fall short on evolution, a watchdog group says.

Published December 30, 2005

Gov. Jeb Bush staked out a curious position on a hot-button issue last week: Florida's K-12 science standards need beefing up, he said. But Darwin's theory of evolution should not be part of them.

Had they heard, many scientists probably would have cringed.

Darwin's theory is a pillar of modern biology. And a new state-by-state analysis by an influential education foundation concludes that Florida's standards are among the worst in the nation - with a big reason being its failure to adequately explain evolution.

The report by the Washington,D.C.-based Fordham Institute calls Florida's standards "thin," "naive," "disappointing" - and in some cases, flat wrong.

"The superficiality of the treatment of evolutionary biology alone justifies the grade "F,' " it says. "But there is in any case scant mitigation elsewhere in these documents."

Critics say the report exposes a glaring oversight in Bush's education revamp, which has focused mostly on reading and math in early grades. It also adds urgency to a pending review of Florida's science standards, which some observers say could devolve into a culture war showdown over evolution and intelligent design.

Bush's off-the-cuff remarks came in response to reporters' questions after a hurricane-related meeting in South Florida.

Evolution "is a scientific theory and he's not opposed to it being taught in classrooms," Bush spokesman Russell Schweiss later clarified. "But he doesn't think it should be necessarily dictated in the standards."

"Oh, boy," University of South Florida chemistry professor Gerry Meisels said Thursday, when told of Bush's position. Meisels directs the state's Coalition for Science Literacy. "Frankly, the state of Florida will be embarrassed, nationally and internationally, if it takes that position."

Science is a hot topic nationwide: The federal No Child Left Behind Act mandates that all states begin annual standardized testing in science by the 2007-08 school year, and a barrage of recent studies show American students falling behind their global peers in math and science.

Industry groups are sounding alarms over the fallout in economic competition, but science educators say average citizens need to be scientifically literate, too, to get a handle on everything from global warming and pollution to hurricanes and bird flu.

"It is important to have more scientists and engineers," said Matt Werhner, program manager for physical sciences at Hillsborough Community College. "But we're going to have many more citizens voting on what the scientists and engineers are doing."

The Fordham analysis concludes standards nationwide have not improved since the institute's last review in 2000. The same number of states earned A or B grades, while slightly more failed.

Among the shortcomings: Trying to teach too much; taking a hands-on approach to "absurd" levels; and watering down evolution "in response to religious and political pressures."

"A number of states have resisted this madness in their science standards but too many are fudging or obfuscating the entire basis on which biology rests," says the report, which was chiefly authored by biologist Paul Gross, former head of the Marine Biological Laboratory at Woods Hole, Mass., and a former provost at the University of Virginia.

Florida was among 15 states that earned F grades, along with Alabama and Mississippi in the South.

Georgia got a B.

South Carolina got an A.

The institute took Florida to task for a "prevalence of errors in fact and presentation" in some subject areas. Example: Florida's standards say a second-grader should know "a thermometer measures the amount of heat absorbed by an object."

"This is careless and false: a thermometer measures temperature, or better, changes in temperature, not the amount of heat absorbed," the report says. "We hope that any second-grade teacher who cannot distinguish between heat and temperature will not pass this disability on to the students."

Florida's standards were slated for review next year. But the Department of Education decided to hold off until 2007 or 2008, citing a longer-than-expected review of math and language arts standards and bad timing with an ongoing textbook review.

Critics suggest political considerations: Elections for governor and the state Legislature are next year, and the teaching of evolution and/or intelligent design could become a potent issue.

Florida's standards were last revised in 1996. They don't mention evolution by name but reference some of its core principles, including the fact that species change over time.

Fordham reviewers were not impressed: "Loose, if not incorrect, generalities offered as standards," they concluded.

In his brief remarks, Bush, a Catholic who believes God created humans, did not offer a detailed explanation for his position or what changes he would like to see. It's also unclear how much influence he may wield. The Department of Education's standards review process is lengthy and includes input from science teachers and the public. The ultimate decision rests with the state Board of Education.

Bush leaves office in January 2007, but the board is likely to still have a majority of his appointees when it's time to vote.

Pinellas County science supervisor Bob Orlopp said earlier this month that postponing the standards review isn't a problem. But many science supervisors want to see changes, he said, and many agree with the institute's conclusion that Florida's standards try "to cover everything."

Many students don't retain much science knowledge unless teachers drill deep on core issues, he said.

"The standards we have are good," he said. "I just think there's too much."

Evolution aside, Florida has other hurdles to clear to improve science literacy, including a critical shortage in its number of highly qualified science teachers. The state will need 4,500 next year alone, yet all of Florida's universities combined are expected to produce about 200. Many districts will be forced to turn to teachers trained in other fields.

Another problem: Students' basic skills in reading comprehension and math.

In Hillsborough Community College science classes, many recent high school graduates have "dismal" reading skills, said Mara Manis, HCC's program manager for biological sciences. So dismal, she said, that before a recent science test, she had to explain the difference between "preceding" and "proceeding."

HCC science instructors also say student math skills are so weak they can't apply the science they do learn. Manis said many students don't know 1 in 4 is 25 percent.

Florida's K-12 teachers "teach all the right things," she said. But too many students "just fill their heads with other cr--."

Ron Matus can be reached at 727 893-8873 or matus@sptimes.com