SALT LAKE CITY — The State School Board approved new science standards Thursday for students in grades K-5 and high schoolers following nearly five hours of debate over at least 25 amendments.
The board voted 11-4 to approve the standards after a lengthy debate that spilled into the evening, rejecting the vast majority of the amendments largely introduced by board member Jennie Earl of Morgan.
These were the first updates in science standards in high school biology, chemistry and physics since 2002, and in Earth science since 2012. It is also the first update of science standards for kindergarten through second grade since 2010.
Some of proposed changes attempted to introduce ethical discussions into certain science disciplines and to include in the standards "counterpoints to identify the patterns in the evidence that support or challenge biological evolution."
Board member Alisa Ellis of Heber City said the education community says it wants students to ask questions, but in many cases, the standards confine students to certain information, prevailing science or thought.
As her friend once explained, "The world is opened up to us as long as we stay in this 9-by-9 cell," she said.
Board member Linda Hansen said science standards are intended to guide the teaching of science, not drift into religion or history.
"We need to stick with the science standards," Hansen said.
The lengthy debate also included comments by some board members who took exception to humans being lumped into the category of animals.
Ellis said not differentiating humans from animals for children diminishes the "significance of who they are."
Hansen lauded the work of the standards writing group and Ricky Scott, science education specialist for State School Board.
"I'm excited for this. I’m excited for the new standards. I'm excited for the kids and I'm excited for the teachers, too," she said.
The board earlier approved updated standards for students for middle schoolers.
State Superintendent of Public Instruction Sydnee Dickson, in a statement, said The Nation’s Report Card currently shows that Utah eighth graders are at the top of their class in science.
“These updates, including more emphasis on principles of engineering, will help keep our students on the cutting edge by engaging in application to real world problem solving," Dickson said.
Utah teachers will be offered training on the new standards during the 2019-20 school year. The standards will be implemented during the 2020-21 school year, according to a board press release.
The standards were designed to build students' knowledge throughout their public school experience.
For example, kindergarteners will be encouraged to observe and evaluate weather, including human reaction to sunny, cloudy, cold or rainy weather.
By third grade, students learn about climate patterns, such as when would they expect it to be hotter or colder, wetter or drier.
By fifth grade, students will learn how weather affects the Earth. In Earth science, students will explore atmospheric processes that transport matter and energy across the planet.
Ellis said she didn't oppose the teaching of science but she is troubled by the standard-setting process, which she said did not include enough people outside the education community, while board members with opposing points of view didn't have adequate opportunity to provide input.
"It's sad, this what I'm going out on," said Ellis, weeping. She recently resigned from the board because she is moving out of state.
Board member Lisa Cummins of Herriman, also serving in her last meeting because she is moving out of state, said she has worked for several years to oppose national education standards being adopted by states. As such, she has been the target of vitriol and negativity.
"I even had a chair thrown at me once," she said.
Cummins said she didn't oppose teaching science and getting one's hands dirty doing experiments. She objects to not including other points of view.
"If we're going to allow content on one side, we need to allow content on the other. That's the only reason I'm voting 'No.' I think our students deserve more," she said.
Other no votes were cast by Earl, Ellis and Michelle Boulter of St. George.
Others, like board member Cindy Davis of American Fork, acknowledged the hard work of many Utahns who labored to develop the new standards.
"I do believe there is a Utah stamp of approval," she said.
The committee that researched and wrote the standards, which included university science faculty and some of the state's top K-12 science educators, noted in a board document that many of the amendments proposed by board member Earl were "fundamentally flawed scientifically," or they noted "change is not preferred."
Earlier in the day, Candace Penrod, science supervisor for the Salt Lake City School District and a member of the science standards writing committee, urged the state board to approve the standards as approved by its standards committee.
"Each word, phrase, practice and cross-cutting concept was carefully chosen to convey the best ideas and concepts of science. Changes, additions or deletions to these standards that deviate from accepted science practice and knowledge undermine science educators’ ability to accurately and effectively teach science to Utah students."
"We respectfully ask you to trust our combined years of expertise and teaching and applying the scientific endeavor in our classrooms, labs and other learning environments."
Penrod said science standards committee had been accused of having an agenda.
"Let me be clear, we do have an agenda. Our agenda is to bring the best we have to offer in science standards to the students in Utah so they can be competitive in the scientific endeavor in our great state, in the nation and in the world. Again, we respectfully to adopt the SEED (Utah Science with Engineering Education) standards as presented to you from the standards review committee,” she said.
The effort to update the standards started in late 2017. The board's approval came after its standards and assessment committee approved the proposed standards last month. That came after a lengthy process to update and write new standards and a 90-day review period, which included six public hearings.