Washington State Science Assessment: What’s the plan?

Current state law requires sophomores to pass the science high school proficiency exam to graduate. What’s the issue, you say?

Students who do not pass the high school proficiency exam this year will be required to pass the biology end of course exam next year, one full year after most of these students have taken biology. The end of course exam is designed to be taken at the end of a course, not the following year.

The biology exam will cover the new 2009 state science standards. The current high school proficiency exam covers the old 2005 standards. This means that within their high school career, many students in our state will be held responsible for two sets of standards and two different tests. This is unjust!

The biology end-of-course exam is going to be introduced next school year in a very high stakes fashion—it must be passed to graduate. It takes time for teachers to adequately prepare for such a new exam—curriculum must be modified; classroom activities must be aligned. This year, however, we had an equally new, equally high stakes, yet completely different exam to prepare for: the science high school proficiency exam. Then, after only one year, this science exam is going to be abandoned and replaced by the biology end of course exam.

Implementing this new science graduation requirement would cost 19.4 million dollars according to a fiscal note prepared by the Office of Financial Management. At a time when our state is unable to fulfill its paramount duty to fund basic education, should we be spending money on a flawed science assessment system?

But where are we going? Our state legislators may have finally heard and responded to some of these concerns. What are their plans?

Three days before tenth graders took the science HSPE, the house passed their budget, which included a proposal to delay the the science assessment graduation requirement for the next biennium. Reasonable, I say. Postponing the graduation requirement would allow for transition between the 2005 and 2009 standards, and would allow teachers to align their courses to the new standards before the assessment becomes high stakes.

Then, on the day of the science HSPE, literally as the sophomores were writing in their assessment booklets, the senate not only introduced their budget proposal, but also passed legislation relating to science.

An amendment to E2SHB 1443 was proposed and passed right there on the senate floor. If students do not pass the science HSPE, they must take a third year of science or a CTE equivalent. The problem: how are schools supposed to create, fund, and staff this third year course on such short notice? Because only two years of science are required for graduation, many schools currently have a sparse selection of third year science/CTE equivalent classes. The existent third year courses may not be the best match for a student who just failed the HSPE.

An even greater problem: The 1443 senate science amendment states, “OSPI must administer a comprehensive science high school assessment and shall not implement any high school science end-of-course assessments.” Here’s the deal: OSPI has already spent time, money, and resources preparing biology end-of-course exams aligned to the new standards! Because these are brand new standards, I am not sure that assessment questions aligned to the physical and earth science standards even exist. If they do not, when would there be an occasion to pilot them before next year’s spring exam administration, as there are no large scale exams scheduled between now and then?

The new high school science standards are designed to be taught over three years. The 1443 senate science amendment would have a comprehensive exam administered after just two years. We can not teach three years worth of standards in only two years, so something must be cut. The standards cover three disciplines: biology, earth science, and physical science. Should one of these be eliminated completely? Should only parts of each discipline be taught? There are no easy answers to these questions, and meanwhile the assessment is high stakes. Following the house plan to delink the graduation requirement from the assessment while these issues are resolved just makes sense.

Our alternate futures: As the special session started this week, assessment bills that had long since died in committee were revived as NTIB, or necessary to implement the budget. Here’s a rundown on the possibilities:

HB 1410/ SB 5226: Request legislation from OSPI. This bill would delay the science assessment graduation requirement for three years. In the meantime, a biology end-of-course exam would be administered. Other end-of-course exams in physical science and integrated science (including earth science) would be phased in over time. Students would have to pass one to graduate. Having several end-of-course exams available would allow more local decision making in terms of class offerings.

HB 1330: Originally this bill dealt with modifications to both math and science requirements. Then, the entire contents was gutted and replaced with language referring exclusively to math. Only the title, “Adjusting high school assessments as graduation requirements,” was left intact. In the intervening period, separate math legislation passed the legislature and was signed by the governor. With such a broad title, the language of the bill could be replaced again with almost anything relating to assessment.

HB 1463: The truly revolutionary alternative. Representative John McCoy, Tulalip, is the prime sponsor of this bill that would eliminate the use of statewide assessments in all subject areas as graduation requirements. With our state and school districts suffering from severe financial constraints, with discussions of reducing the length of the school year, do we really want to spend our money and class time on testing, or do we want to spend these valuable resources on teaching and learning?

Note: I first wrote portions of this as a guest post for the Center for Strenthening the Teaching Profession’s blog, Stories from School, and for testimony to the state’s House Education Committe which Al Gonzalez so kindly posted on his blog.

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Building a Stinkin’ Community

I’m going to start out my first post on this blog by looking back to one of my most vivid classroom lab experiences ever.  One year ago in my chemistry class, we were making soap.  This was the real deal–we started from scratch and used nothing but fat and lye to make soap the way people around the world have been making it for thousands of years.

It was right before Mother’s Day, and many of the students had high hopes of presenting their mothers with a handcrafted gift of soap.  They spent several days working on cardboard soap molds shaped like stars, hearts, and even a guitar mold made by a talented student musician.

Anticipation was high the day of the soap making itself.  Students bring in their own sources of fat–most bring in things like Crisco, coconut oil or lard.  Last year, however, the vast majority of students brought in butter. After the butter was melted, it was time to add the sodium hydroxide (lye).  Students pour the soft soap into their molds, and it hardens over a few days.

The trouble started quite quickly.  A student working with my personal favorite hot plate was a bit impatient and turned the thing up to high.  This hot plate really cooks, so the “high” setting led to boiling over of the fatty sodium hydroxide solution onto the hot plate surface.  Students at nearby lab stations noticed an acrid burning odor.

The acrid burning odor got worse–it turned into one of the most foul scents there has ever been in my chemistry lab.  It was like rancid butter, but far worse.  The sticky mess continued to bubble on the hot plate surface, and over the control knobs.   I grabbed a hot mitt to turn it off–I got the hot plate turned off, but now the mitt was covered with the putrid substance.  We opened windows and turned on exhaust fans.  Let’s admit it–this smell was bad.  When organic chemistry goes wrong, it is not pleasant on the nose. Amid the colorful student comments concerning the odor, one student said, “I feel like I might vomit.” Another student noted, “I wish someone would vomit–that might actually make it smell better in here.”

Meanwhile, a few lab stations over, the aspiring musician was pouring his solution into his guitar mold.  His mold was not well constructed, and the weight of the solution caused the whole thing to collapse, spilling the greasy smelly mess all over the counter and the floor.   Wanting to be helpful, the student grabbed a pile of hot mitts and used them to soak up the liquid–we now had a pile of stinky hot mitts.

I was getting out the chemical spill kit to deal with the rest of the mess when the door opened.  Perfect–it’s the assistant principal in my room for an unannounced walk through!  I mumbled a few words of explanation, a bit chagrinned by the three ring circus of chaos that was unfolding.  “But looking at classrooms is much more authentic this way!” he assured me as he sidestepped a mess on the floor.

Some students had actually filled their molds with solution and were putting them away in a cabinet. I went back to see how they looked.  Much to my consternation, one student had clearly made a bar of soap shaped and colored like a psychedelic mushroom.  This was completely inappropriate for school and I would not tolerate something like this in my classroom.  I went about trying to find the perpetrator.  After a few inquiries, I had a suspect.  It wasn’t a student who I would normally associate with such nefarious behavior, but one never knows.  I asked the student what he thought he was doing making such a thing at school.  He protested his innocence.  Holding the alleged magic mushroom up to himself, he said, “But Ms. Johnson, I was just trying to make a piece of soap that looked like the sweater I was wearing today!”

I examined the sweater.  I examined the soap.  Sure enough, they were a close match.  How was I supposed to know the sides of the mushroom were actually sweater sleeves?  This student’s collection of sweaters was a standing joke at school, and he had decided that the especially colorful and fuzzy sweater he had on today was worth memorializing in soap. 
The lab ended and we got most of the place cleaned up.

Lessons learned?  Well, we won’t be making soap from butter again!  Sodium hydroxide breaks down the fats, the triglycerides, into three fatty acids.  A sodium ion then combines with a fatty acid to form a soap molecule.  When you use butter as the source of fat, and then apply too much heat, the fatty acid is broken down even further to butyric acid, the chemical providing the odor in both rancid butter and vomit.

Did we actually have any product to show for our efforts? No–instead we had a stinking mess!   What did we get?  Well, hopefully the students got a vivid mental hook to hang some of their ideas on both about lab safety and the chemical reactions involved.

More than that, we had a strong shared experience in chemistry class.  Maybe we all stank, but at least we stank together!  The most well-designed lesson ever will go nowhere unless it is built on a positive classroom climate, and common experiences provide that.  The social media project that this blog is a part of is all about expanding our community beyond our school.  To do that well, we first need to make sure that we have strong relationships with the people we see every day.

It’s a tough time in our state.  It’s a tough time in our district.  Let’s make sure we capitalize on our shared experiences to build that sense of community.