Weird science: Standards hearing marked by confusion, questions

Confusion, contention and procedural questions abounded during the first day of public testimony over proposed new science standards.

The House Education Committee conducted a public hearing Thursday to consider a slate of proposed new academic science content standards. The committee took no action and will continue its work Friday.

More than 100 people filed into the Lincoln Auditorium. Legislators called on seven of them during the nearly two-hour hearing.

Every speaker was a teacher or student. Every speaker urged legislators to pass the full slate of standards intact.

The meeting was politically charged, and veered off the rails at several points. Chairwoman Julie VanOrden, R-Pingree, cut off two students who brought up climate change after traveling to the Statehouse to testify before lawmakers.

VanOrden had warned the audience that the meeting was not a hearing on climate change. However, she did not cut off Rep. Lance Clow, R-Twin Falls, who brought up climate change several times before the students ever spoke.

VanOrden later apologized after Rep. John McCrostie, D-Garden City, said the public should be allowed to comment on the full slate of proposed standards, which make multiple references to climate change, global warming and human impact on the environment.

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“I made a mistake,” VanOrden said. “I will admit it.”

VanOrden also gaveled the audience into silence after a small number of people clapped quietly for a student who spoke in favor of science standards.

VanOrden called the applause an inappropriate outburst. However, she had issued previous warning about clapping to the audience, which included many students who are unfamiliar with legislative decorum.

At one point, the hearing ground to a halt after legislators appeared confused over whether they were considering a full slate of standards, or just the five paragraphs they deleted a year ago.

Lawmakers approved temporary standards in 2017, after first removing five references to climate change and human impact on the environment.

Those standards are set to expire, which is why legislators are considering a new slate of standards in 2018.

At one point, Superintendent of Public Instruction Sherri Ybarra intervened in an effort to clear things up. She urged lawmakers to act, partly because Idaho’s science assessment test has been rejected and needs to be rewritten this year.

“It’s going to confuse the daylights out of our students,” Ybarra said. “If these do not pass today, we are going backwards.”

In other testimony Thursday:

  • Ilah Hickman, the Boise student who led a successful, years-long effort to convince the Legislature to adopt the Idaho Giant Salamander as a state symbol, returned to the Statehouse to support the standards. Ilah said her generation needs a robust education in order to confront a changing planet.
  • Former Idaho Teacher of the Year Melyssa Ferro said the proposed standards “encourage students to question their world and seek evidence to support their conclusions.”
  • Timberline High School student Cassie Kenyon said removing references to human impact on the environment amounts to censoring her education. “Honestly, science education shouldn’t be a political issue,” Cassie said.

No one spoke against the science standards or teaching climate change and human impact on the environment, which seems to square with public sentiment gathered between the 2017 and 2018 legislative sessions.

Last spring, a committee of award-winning Idaho teachers, university officials and industry representatives developed the new standards. State officials presented those standards during six public hearings, gathering feedback from 1,000 people in the process. State Department of Education officials on Thursday said only five of the 1,000 people opposed the science standards.

After Thursday’s hearing adjourned, Rep. Scott Syme, R-Caldwell, told Idaho Education News that he is preparing a motion to remove “one or two” paragraphs or “one standard” from the rule. Syme did not specify which standard or paragraphs he would attempt to pull out, but he called them sections with loaded language that pushed students toward certain conclusions.

“We all want new science standards, but if there is something in there that doesn’t support inquiry-based learning, I don’t think it should be in there,” Syme said.

Last year, Syme led House Education’s action to remove references to human impact on the environment.

The hearing will reconvene at 8 a.m. Friday.

Further reading: Click here to read the full slate of proposed new science standards.

Check back with Idaho Education News on Friday for ongoing coverage. Follow @idahoednews on Twitter for live updates from Friday’s hearing.

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