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ASHG Report Concludes US States' Genetics Education Standards Fall Short

NEW YORK (GenomeWeb News) – US high school kids may not be getting sound educations in basic genetics, and nearly all of the states do not have adequate standards to provide the knowledge required to understand the science underlying the advancing era of personalized medicine, according to a new study by the American Society of Human Genetics.

The ASHG study of all 50 states and the District of Columbia, published yesterday in the CBE-Life Sciences Journal, found that that few states have standards that ensure that high school students understand the core concepts necessary for a fundamental education in modern genetics.

The study found that only seven states — Delaware, Illinois, Kansas, Michigan, North Carolina, Tennessee, and Washington — have genetic standards that were rated as 'adequate' for teaching genetic literacy.

Of the 19 core concepts in genetics that ASHG deems essential learning, 14 were rated as being inadequately covered by the nation as a whole (or were absent altogether). And only two states, Michigan and Delaware, were rated as 'adequate' in more than 14 of the 19 core concept areas. Twenty-three states rated as adequate in six or fewer of the core concepts, ASHG found.

"ASHG's findings indicate that the vast majority of US students in grade 12 may be inadequately prepared to understand fundamental genetic concepts," Edward McCabe, executive director of the Linda Crnic Institute for Down Syndrome at the University of Colorado, said in a statement from ASHG.

"Healthcare is moving rapidly toward personalized medicine, which is infused with genetics. Therefore, it is essential we provide America's youth with the conceptual toolkit that is necessary to make informed healthcare decisions, and the fact that these key concepts in genetics are not being taught in many states is extremely concerning," added McCabe, who also is a pediatrician and geneticist.

"Science education in the United States is based on testing and accountability standards that are developed by each state," said Michael Dougherty, director of education at ASHG and the study's lead author. "These standards determine the curriculum, instruction, and assessment of high school level science courses in each state, and if standards are weak, then essential genetics content may not be taught."

The 19 core concepts ASHG identified range from the most basic, such as "DNA is the genetic material for all species of living organisms," to more advanced ideas, such as, "Different genes are turned on and off at specific times to form different types of cells and to influence the way different cells function."

ASHG turned to its Genetics Education Outreach Network, a volunteer network across the country of geneticists who work in K-12 classrooms, to recruit 167 volunteers to review the performance of the states on teaching these core concepts.

ASHG is not alone in concluding that genetics education among the general public may not be adequate. A recent report from The US Department of Health and Human Services identified public education in genetics as one of a number of critical areas that need to be reviewed and addressed as the healthcare system prepares for an expected onslaught of new genomic medicine applications in the clinic and new tests that are being sold directly to consumers.

The Secretary's Advisory Committee on Genetics Health and Society concluded in that report that among consumers and patients "there is an underlying need to improve genetic literacy in the formative years and throughout their lifespan."

The SACGHS committee's research found that consumers understand that there is a relationship between genetics and health outcomes, but they generally do not understand complex traits or the contribution genes can make in common diseases, or how genetic information could be used to optimize health. However limited their understanding of genetics, consumers have been supportive of using it to improve disease diagnosis and prevention, the committee found.

The National Human Genome Research Institute also has identified genetics education among the public as an area that requires improvement, and has created an Education and Community Involvement Branch and launched a genetic education outreach website and program aimed at providing resources for teachers.

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