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.

Leave a comment


  1. Wow, this is all truly dizzying! If all those sets of, hopefully improving, standards were just guides and ways for us to gauge our Science instruction it would be great. It’s the high stakes, now narrowed, testing that ruins the work.

    Thanks for keeping us informed and for your continued fight for our kids!

  2. jryanscied

     /  December 11, 2011

    Great information here regarding the roller coaster ride of the current and pending changes in science education standards. It is enough to make one dizzy (thanks Al!), and it will take great restraint for school leaders to keep focused on just teaching good science and not revamp entire course line-ups or narrow science instruction emphasis to JUST biology.

    I have to agree with your conclusion that given all the changes: the NGSS and all the implications of possible “common core” status and changing assessments, the current lack of financial resources to support the creation of a comprehensive state high school science assessment, and the energy that it takes for our school systems to respond to new standards and assessments, it is best to suspend the current EOC Biology assessment.

    My biggest concern is the knee jerk reaction that some districts will make to respond to the Biology EOC without care and thought for the long term and especially thought being given to the best way to promote science literacy for all students.

    I think Neil deGrasse Tyson says it well here:

    And his mentor and predecessor Carl Sagen during his last interview before his death in 1996:

  3. Al and Jeff, I appreciate your comments! Jeff, making your points with video clips even, alright! My favorite Carl Sagan quote from this clip, paraphrasing Thomas Jefferson, “If we don’t run the government, the government will run us.”

  4. Todd

     /  December 11, 2011

    Now I am ready to go testify before the legislature. I am not sure why reading your blog finally got me pissed off enough since we have certainly talked about it often enough, but with the EOC being required it really does mean all biology all the time. Especially with the state’s supposed support for STEM there is a whole lot more to science and engineering than biology and bioengineering. Not that there is anything wrong with that, to paraphrase Jerry Seinfeld. Sheesh. I hope cooler heads prevail.

  5. This madness has got to stop. Go for it, Todd! And Jeff, hearing what you are saying scares me for other schools as well as makes me glad that I work at a school where our leadership won’t cancel physical science, physics, chemistry, and materials science to schedule more biology, bioengineering, and adv bio. Balance is the only way to teach STEM!

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