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Science Teachers Association criticizes changes to climate standards

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By Ryan Quinn
The Charleston Gazette 

The West Virginia Science Teachers Association is criticizing the state Board of Education’s controversial changes to K-12 education standards on climate change, saying the changes compromise and misrepresent the science.

“Climate change will be addressed in West Virginia classrooms, and teachers will continue to provide students with the data and skills they need to be informed West Virginia citizens,” WVSTA President Libby Strong wrote in a statement. “The science was compromised by these modifications to the standards, specifically by casting doubt on the credibility of the evidence-based climate models and misrepresentation of trends in science when analyzing graphs dealing with temperature changes over time.”

The group said it was unaware of the changes before news media reported on them.

Strong also said that, while the association’s representatives reviewed previous changes to the standards and the group has endorsed the requirements as a whole, the state school board “made these final changes unilaterally.”

At the request of school board member Wade Linger, who said he doesn’t believe human-influenced climate change is a “foregone conclusion,” the teaching requirements concerning climate change were altered before the board placed them on a 30-day public comment period in October and voted to adopt them last month. The standards will take effect in the 2016-17 school year.

The teaching requirements are part of new standards based on the national Next Generation Science Standards blueprint.

The changes, for example, added “and fall” after “rise” to a proposed standard requiring that sixth-graders “ask questions to clarify evidence of the factors that have caused the rise in global temperatures over the past century.”

Gayle Manchin, president of the school board, said she also knew the changes had been made before the full list of standards was put out for public comment. It’s unclear if any other board members other than Manchin and Linger knew about the alterations; two said they did not.

Manchin has called for a public discussion on the changes at the next school board meeting, to be held Wednesday at 10 a.m. at the Capitol Complex, in Charleston.

The Japan Meteorological Agency recently declared that 2014 was the hottest year recorded since record-keeping began in 1891. The 2014 National Climate Assessment, written and reviewed by a team of 300 scientists and required by a 1990 law signed by President George H.W. Bush, projects that southwestern West Virginia could experience more than 60 additional days per year above 90 degrees by 2050, compared to the end of the 1900s, if greenhouse gas emissions continue to increase.

The increased frequency, intensity, and duration of heat waves “will affect the region’s vulnerable agriculture and ecosystems,” the report says. It also projects that mountainous regions in West Virginia could experience more intense precipitation events that will mean greater flood risk, particularly in valleys, where people, infrastructure and agriculture tend to be concentrated.

Late last month, before the Gazette-Mail first reported the story, Strong said she didn’t think the changed standards would hamper teachers. She, like state Department of Education officials, said the changes would encourage students to think critically about the topic.

On Saturday, Strong said she was “in the dark” when she previously spoke with the Gazette-Mail and “didn’t realize the back story.” She said she had some concern with the changes at the time of the first interview but thought they’d been looked over by other science teachers. Now she thinks that’s not the case.

Clayton Burch, executive director of the state’s Office of Early Learning and interim associate state superintendent, said staff within the Department of Education made and vetted the changes in response to Linger’s concerns. It’s unclear who the staff members involved were. Department of Education spokeswoman Liza Cordeiro said Friday that staff members won’t comment until after Wednesday’s board meeting.

The Science Teachers Association and the public could have protested the climate change language during the 30-day comment period, but no comments were submitted on the three standards that were changed.

In addition to the sixth-grade standard, the changes were:

| Original ninth-grade science requirement: “Analyze geoscience data and the results from global climate models to make an evidence-based forecast of the current rate of global or regional climate change and associated future impacts to Earth systems.”

| Adopted version: “Analyze geoscience data and the predictions made by computer climate models to assess their creditability [sic] for predicting future impacts on the Earth System.”

| Original high school elective Environmental Science requirement: “Debate climate changes as it [sic] relates to greenhouse gases, human changes in atmospheric concentrations of greenhouse gases, and relevant laws and treaties.”

| Adopted version: “Debate climate changes as it relates to natural forces such as Milankovitch cycles, greenhouse gases, human changes in atmospheric concentrations of greenhouse gases, and relevant laws and treaties.”

Milankovitch cycles are long-term changes in Earth’s orbit around the sun, and some who do not believe in man-made global warming use that theory as the basis of their assertion that the Earth is simply in a natural warming period.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, which has released dire reports about climate change impacts with a more than 95 percent certainty that humans are the main cause, states on its website that the coming and going of Earth’s ice ages is greatly linked to these orbital changes, but adds that since the start of the industrial period around 1750 the “human impact on climate during this era greatly exceeds that due to known changes in natural processes, such as solar changes and volcanic eruptions.”

Strong said she and others read the version of the standards that went out for public comment, but perhaps didn’t look closely enough because the alterations were only a few lines among 70 pages, and they thought they were reviewing a version the association had already seen.

“Everyone on the [association’s] board agrees that we wish we would have caught this prior to them being approved, but we didn’t,” Strong said.

Strong made two comments on the full set of standards during the public comment period, both of which were positive overall and one of which endorsed the standards on behalf of the association, noting the “widespread involvement” of science educators in reviewing the teaching requirements and the standards’ potential to “move West Virginia forward.”

The association was well represented, Strong said, in the group of West Virginia stakeholders who critiqued the national Next Generation Science Standards blueprint — of which West Virginia was one of 26 lead state partners in developing. The association also was part of committees that helped choose, for the Mountain State specifically, which standards would be taught at middle school grade levels.

“We had been so well represented all along that there wasn’t any thought that changes would be made without our representation,” Strong said.

At a time when West Virginia’s separate but connected Common Core-based English/language arts and math standards are facing Republican opposition, Department of Education officials repeatedly have downplayed their control over curriculum in classrooms.

Strong said students are tested on standards, standards help guide which textbooks are selected and principals often require teachers’ lesson plans to show which standards they’re going over.

“So yes, there’s a direct correlation between what’s in those standards and what’s taught in the classroom,” she said. “And, generally, if it’s not in the state standards, it doesn’t get addressed.”