It never ends, of course. (Nor should it.) The End-of-Course exam and two new sets of science standards

What am I doing this year in 10th grade biology?  Besides trying to plan great labs and engaging lessons, I am adjusting my instruction for a brand new set of science standards.  Yep, the “new” 2009 state science standards are finally operational for 10th grade—this is the first year we are using them.  Is this a good change?  Why yes, I think so—there is more depth and less breadth, and an increased emphasis on systems, inquiry, and application.

What else did I do this week?  Provided feedback on a completely different set of new science standards.  These new standards, called the Next Generation Science Standards, are based on the National Research Council’s Framework for Science Education.  Have a look at the framework.  The content of this very early draft of the standards that we reviewed is still confidential, but a public draft should be available early next year.  Here’s a timeline–props to all individuals and organizations involved for seeking educator input at so many points along the way.

The irony of simultaneously thinking about two completely different sets of new science standards is not lost on me.  Hey, talk about a dizzying pace of change! Yes, one is in a final version and is now operational in my classroom, and the other is still in early draft form, but I literally went from Monday in my classroom, looking at the new state standards and thinking about how a specific standard should look that day for that lesson; to Tuesday in a conference room, looking at the new Next Generation Standard on a similar topic, trying to provide feedback from the perspective of how that would look in the classroom.  Any long term standards document like the Next Generation standards should be a living document, and of course state standards like the ones we have had should change with time, but in planning standards changes, care should be taken to allow teachers time to adjust instruction!

So why are we just starting to use the “new” 2009 state science standards now, in the year 2011?  Well, last year, tenth grade science teachers were busy with the “old” 2005 standards, because the legislature’s plan until the very end of last school year was to require students to pass an exam based on these old standards in order to graduate. The plan changed, but not in time for us to devote any class or professional development time to learning to use the new standards.  This year, not only do we have the brand new 2009 standards, we also have a brand new assessment: the biology End-of-Course exam.

So how about assessment?  Federal law currently mandates a state science test in high school.  Here’s how that is playing out in Washington state:

  1. We currently have the biology end-of-course exam, which is slated to be required for graduation for this year’s ninth graders.  Clearly, by limiting the test to biology, and then especially by making this test high stakes, Washington state is forcing a focus on biology.  State law itself recognizes this problem.  Section 1 of House Bill 1410, passed this year, reads, “The legislature does not wish to narrow the high school science curriculum to a singular focus on biology.  However, the legislature finds that the financial resources for developing additional end-of-course assessments for high school science are not available in the 2011-2013 biennium.”
  2. The Science Frameworks themselves provide advice for designing science assessments, and read, “Science assessments must target the full range of knowledge and practices described in this report.”  Clearly a singular focus on biology doesn’t do this.
  3. The earliest possible that a science assessment based on the Next Generation Science Standards may be ready is 2016, and this is an ambitious estimate.

What do we do here in Washington state in the meantime?

  1. We simply don’t have the money as a state to develop new integrated state science tests or tests in multiple science disciplines.  When we are considering raising class sizes and cutting the school year, we can not put further resources into the development of new standardized tests.  That simply can not be a priority.
  2. High stakes testing is expensive.  The new biology end-of-course exam graduation requirement will cost the state and local districts money for remediation, retesting, and developing and scoring a new Collection of Evidence in biology.
  3. Since a high stakes test on biology could limit statewide instruction to focus on biology, and since we don’t have the money to develop new tests, I think that we must eliminate the high stakes nature of the biology end-of-course exam.  The biology EOC should not be required for graduation.

What should we as teachers do in the classroom amidst all of this?  Just do our best to employ solid science instruction, and let those around us know about the issues we and our students face.

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Be part of the story! Teachers stand up for change.

I’d like to tell you a story.  A story about last year’s legislative session.  It’s the story of how we as teachers, those of us in 24th legislative district and beyond, made a huge difference in Washington state education.

At the beginning of last year’s session, there were two policy challenges that particularly struck me and others: the high stakes linking of deeply flawed math and science assessments to graduation, and the governor’s proposed elimination of National Board stipends.

During the last session, my students, the sophomores I currently had in class, were required to pass the science HSPE to graduate. If my students did not pass this test, they would be required to pass the biology end-of-course exam the following year.  The biology end-of-course exam was a new test, covering different standards.  This meant that students would be responsible for two completely different sets of science standards in their high school career.  This was unjust.  If my students did not pass this test, they would be required to take the biology end-of-course exam not at the end of their biology course, but a full year later.  This defied common sense.  Implementing this new graduation requirement would cost the state millions of dollars at a time of severe cuts to education.

Only the state legislature could delay this requirement.  I wrote letters to legislators, but I quickly realized that one person working alone would not be enough.  I would need allies.  I contacted the WEA.  They put me in touch with a Sequim teacher who was working on similar issues with the high school math assessments. We testified before the house and senate education committees and met personally with legislators, both in Olympia and here at home.

Meanwhile, here in our 24th legislative district, teachers mobilized around full funding for education and the maintenance of the National Board stipends. Teachers travelled to Olympia to meet in legislators’ offices.  Teachers spoke out at legislative town hall meetings in Port Townsend, Sequim, and North Kitsap.  Teachers invited legislators into their classrooms and into their living rooms.

The battle continued throughout the legislative session.  The outcome?  Success on several fronts!  The number of math tests was reduced from two to one.  National Board stipends were maintained almost in full. Finally, late in the evening on the last day of the special session, House Bill 1410 passed and the science graduation requirement was delayed, allowing for a more just assessment for the students.

In the Chimacum Education Association, we are small, but mighty.  But we are not just Chimacum, not just Port Townsend, and not just the Olympic and Kitsap Peninsulas.  Teachers all across Washington state are standing up.  We have long been the voice of common sense education reform.  My aunts and my parents, retired teachers, recently helped my grandmother, also a teacher, move to an assisted living home.  In one of her jewelry boxes, my dad found this.  My grandma attended the WEA statewide rep assembly in 1943 and kept her ribbon credentials to this day.

Our collective wisdom about what works for kids is great.  I truly believe that education policy improves for students when teachers voice their opinions.  So now, on the first day of the legislative session, I invite all of you to be part of the story of change in our state.

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This is what I had to say at the Statewide Day of Action event hosted by the Chimacum Education Association.  I hope all of you find an issue and make your voice heard this legislative session!