The Latest Teacher Evaluation Bill and the High Stakes Biology Exam: Potentially a Bad Combination

Should I as a 10th grade biology teacher be attempting to pressure the 9th grade physical science teachers to abandon their studies of physics, chemistry, and earth science, and instead just teach biology so that we all might have higher test scores? Should the 9th grade physical science teachers be evaluated on the scores of a biology end-of-course exam given to students a full year after they have left their class, on a subject they did not even teach?

These questions might seem purely rhetorical, and even a bit ridiculous, but right now the biology end-of-course exam is slated to become high stakes for students next year, and with potential new legislation on teacher evaluation, (SB 5895) high stakes for teachers as well. This combination of assessment and evaluation legislation could easily spell the end of anything but biology in 9th and 10th grade science.

Since the beginning of the new Teacher/Principal Evaluation Pilot (TPEP) in Washington state, student growth data has played a part—the current law states that student growth data, if available and relevant, may be used in the evaluation. Proposed new legislation greatly increases the role that student growth data may play. The proposed bill 5895 states, “Student growth data must be a substantial factor in evaluating the summative performance of certificated classroom teachers for at least three of the evaluation criteria.” Student growth data would include data like the results from the Biology End-of-Course exam.

Not only would growth data be a substantial part of teacher evaluation, but then the results of that teacher evaluation would be used for personnel decisions like involuntary transfers and RIFs. This makes the evaluation an extremely high stakes issue for a teacher. (On a side note, the use of evaluations in such personnel decisions is serious enough to potentially jeopardize all the hard work and positive collaborative experiences pilot districts have had with TPEP so far. 5895 does have many positive sections, including an extended transitional period to 2015-2016, and the provision of training.) The biology end-of-course exam is already scheduled to become extremely high stakes for students because it will be required for graduation.

Furthermore, 5895 also would make it possible to include student growth data from teams of teachers. It states, “Student growth data elements may include the teacher’s performance as a member of a grade-level, subject matter, or other instructional team. Student growth data elements may also include the teacher’s performance as a member of the overall instructional team of a school.” The intent is to promote collaboration, laudable, but it would mean that a team of 9th and 10th grade science teachers could be evaluated on the only state standardized test available—the biology end-of-course exam.

This team-level evaluation is what complicates the matter for science teachers. The only subject area currently being tested in high school science is biology. If we are evaluated in a high stakes manner on our student test scores, and our student test scores are only in biology, does this mean as a team we should only teach biology? If the only science test our students must pass to graduate is on biology, does this further mean that we should only teach biology?

The double impact of the evaluation and science assessment legislation could have a very harmful impact on science education in our state. Chemistry, physics, earth and space science are all extraordinarily important disciplines and they must not be forgotten, but unfortunately the legislation narrows the focus to biology. The biology end-of-course exam could be delinked from graduation as “Necessary To Implement the Budget” (NTIB) because it would save the state 32 million dollars, and save local school districts 16 million in costs for remediation, retesting, rescoring, and developing alternatives such as a Collection of Evidence. (These figures are from the fiscal note on SB 6314.) This money would be better used for teaching and learning, not testing. To improve science education in our state, and to allow student learning in all science disciplines, the biology end-of-course exam should not be a high stakes exam for either teachers or students.

Graduation Requirements, Unfunded Mandates, and the Spectre of All biology All the time

The State Board of Education recently increased the number of academic credits required for graduation.  This is an unfunded mandate: no additional money is being provided to schools to meet this requirement.  At the same time, the number of elective requirements was reduced.  Increasing the number of academic requirements while reducing the number of elective credits takes students out of classes they are passionate about and could have a huge detrimental effect on music and art!

This narrowing of the curriculum from flexible elective choice to more specific required courses is mirrored in the state’s move from a broad area science exam to a single test in biology.   These  issues are not yet resolved, and they could be acted on as necessary to implement the budget (NTIB) as they are changes that would both improve student learning AND save money.   I recently testified to the House Education and Senate K-12 Committees in Olympia.

Here’s what I had to say:

At Chimacum, we have an outstanding science department. We as teachers hold our students and ourselves to high standards.  We have a new class this year, Materials Science: students investigate questions like, “Why are airplanes now made of carbon fiber composites instead of the traditional aluminum?”  Students work on projects such as exploring various methods of heat treating to make steel stronger.  In our Middle School, students test the water quality of our local creek and then blog about the results.  In my class, chemistry students used column chromatography to separate green fluorescent protein from bacteria.  The most difficult, but also the most rewarding part of the experience is trying to integrate the biology, chemistry, and the technology involved.

These classes are successful because they integrate science, technology, engineering, and math—STEM. However, our current state graduation requirements are not conducive to such experiences. Instead of providing for an integrated STEM experience, what our state requires is a number of discrete credits and an end-of-course exam that is limited to biology. 

Increasing the number of academic requirements while reducing the number of elective credits takes students out of classes they are passionate about, such as music, art, materials science, or Career and Technical Education and puts them into yet another required class.  Each additional credit required reduces student choice and school flexibility to provide creative course offerings.  Requiring more credits without providing the commensurate funding makes it extraordinarily difficult to give students a quality education.

In addition, the increasing and ever changing complexity of the graduation requirements themselves detracts from the schools’ mission to improve student learning.  At my school, each teacher also has an advisory consisting of a mixed group of students from freshmen to seniors.  To help us track the progress of our advisory students, our principal regularly sends out a spreadsheet showing which students have met which requirements.  With culminating projects, credits, high school proficiency exams, and end-of-course exams, the number of columns in that graduation requirement spreadsheet grows and grows each year.   The complexity of the task of tracking all of this is as daunting as the length of the line of students outside the counselors’ office seeking assistance.  Instead of spending our time working on improving student learning, we are spending time checking boxes and counting credits!

The most powerful STEM teaching and learning experiences at my school have been integrated and creative. This year, I have an ambitious plan for my students to try to determine how closely related two local salmon species are using protein electrophoresis—the biotechnology equipment is borrowed from a local research institution.

So do we put all this hoping and dreaming for our classes aside so we can focus on counting credits and preparing students for a standardized test solely in biology?

By offering an end-of-course exam only in biology, our state is forcing an emphasis on biology to the detriment of other disciplines in science.  This problem is exacerbated by making this exam high stakes, as it will be for this year’s freshmen.  Making the new biology end-of-course exam a graduation requirement is expensive, as the high stakes nature will incur costs for retakes, remediation, and rescoring.

The biology end-of-course exam is the only high school science exam that has been developed for the current state science standards.  With the severe budget cuts that are being made, our state simply does not have the money to develop end-of-course exams in physical, earth, and space science or to create a new integrated science exam.   It also does not make sense to put resources into developing new state exams when the national Next Generation Science Standards, based on the Science Frameworks, are going to be released for adoption consideration this fall.  We should not invest in a brand new state science assessment graduation requirement now when we will have a completely different new national science test in just a few years.

A high stakes biology EOC is harmful to earth, space, and physical science education in the state of Washington because it forces schools to emphasize biology to the detriment of other science disciplines.  Some schools offer integrated science only–a one size fits all biology end-of-course exam is not fair to these students.  This spring, as schools make plans for next year, they may divert staff and resources away from the critical disciplines of physical, earth, and space science because biology is the only requirement. It is therefore urgent to alleviate this problem by delinking the biology EOC from graduation requirements.

The biology end-of-course exam should not be a high stakes graduation requirement. We want students to enjoy learning; we want to light that fire and instill that student drive and motivation.  Eliminating the graduation requirement condition of the Biology End-of-Course exam is a change that would not hurt student learning.  Instead, it would support teachers and allow more funding to provide our students with a high quality, integrated STEM learning experience.

.

Key bills to support related to these issues:

Senate Bill 6314: Delink end-of-course biology exam from graduation requirements
House Bill 2231: Reducing costs by reducing student assessments
House Bill 2492, House Bill 2543, Senate Bill 6320: Fiscal Impact of State Board of Education requirements