Depictions of Dinosaurs in Standardized Tests

Posted on 27 August 2010

As with many children, I was always interested in dinosaurs and I have kept that love of paleontology with me as an adult. I’m not a paleontologist but just a run-of-the-mill (35yr old) kid who loves dinos and tries to keep up with current trends in paleontology and evolutionary science. So, naturally, it pains me to see out-dated depictions of them, especially on standardized tests, specifically this year’s New York State Grade 8 Science assessment. And while these problems are not directly related to the question being asked, I contacted the New York State Education Department and suggested that the graphics and terminology be updated to reflect a more current outlook on dinosaurs and their evolution.

2010 Grade 8 Science Assessment, Question 5

Where to begin? Firstly, there is a typo: the image and first answer refer to a “theodont”; the correct term is “thecodont“. Unfortunately, “thecodont” is considered to be an obsolete term and all modern paleontologists use the term “archosaur“.

Secondly, the dinosaurs in the associated image are shown as tail-draggers. Most dinosaurs are no longer depicted as tail-draggers, especially since Bob Bakker published The Dinosaur Heresies back in 1986 and a body of evidence points to birds as being the descendants of dinosaurs. Even Charles R. Knight didn’t depict dinosaurs as tail-draggers in his 1897 painting, Leaping Laelaps!

Thirdly, Coelophysis is a distinct species that did not evolve into theropods or sauropods; theropods were well established by the time of coelophysis.

I do have to give some leeway in the depiction of Triceratops, though. John Scannella and Jack Horner have recently shown that Triceratops may be a juvenile Torosaurus ( but this paper was published after the Grade 8 Science assessment was administered.

Like I’d said, I realize that the “problems” I see are not directly related to the specific question being asked but, overall, they do reflect a dated outlook on dinosaurs and their evolution. Unfortunately, the reply I received from NYSED says, “Thank you for your comments. The graphic was referenced to a source. Perhaps it was not reflective of current conventions in the dinosaur world! We appreciate the information you have provided”. One can only hope that next year’s assessment — and the textbooks being used in science classes — might be updated to reflect a more current view of dinosaurs and their evolution!

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