Beef Day in the State Capital and the Next Generation Science Standards

BBQ It was beef day in Olympia and the cowboy lobbyists brought their barbecue and shared all around. It was hard to compete with that, but my fellow educators and I did our best to make the case for the Next Generation Science Standards, and I also talked about the Biology End of Course Exam. We testified before the House Education Committee. It was actually pretty fun.

The legislators were interested! Representative Steve Bergquist asked me, “Is the current Biology End of Course exam graduation requirement standing in the way of a transition to the Next Generation Science Standards?” (1 minute, starting at 32:48)

Testimony: Madame Chair, members of the committee: My name is Maren Johnson. I’m a National Board Certified science teacher at Chimacum High School. Chimacum is a small rural school district located on the Olympic Peninsula. I teach tenth grade biology and chemistry. Next year I’m teaching a dual credit College in the High School biology class.

I’ve been part of the OSPI team that has been reviewing drafts of the Next Generation Science Standards. It’s been gratifying to see evidence of our feedback used in the draft revisions.

The Next Generation Science Standards show what science education can be. Science and engineering practices are paired with content to provide a context for the student learning. I’d like to describe this to you by telling you about one of the projects my students have worked on in the last few years. I attended a summer science partnership program for teachers–I had the opportunity to shadow a research scientist in Seattle for a week. The topic of this scientist’s research? That’s right…Monkey Herpes.

I learned how to use biotechnology to analyze proteins produced by monkey herpes with gel electrophoresis. I then collaborated with the scientist and with other teachers to develop a curriculum project. Back in the classroom, my students analyzed proteins using the same research lab techniques used to study monkey herpes–but instead, my students studied proteins from our local salmon. This electrophoresis lab with local salmon was a blast!

I’d like to think this protein electrophoresis project embodies what the Next Generation Science Standards are all about–students learning science the way science is practiced in the real world—integrated, rigorous, and applied.

The Next Generation Science Standards also promote coherence in teaching science across disciplines and across grades. This is different than what sometimes happens with our current standards and state assessment.

Currently, my tenth grade students take a year of biology followed by the biology end-of-course exam. It’s a pretty narrow focus which emphasizes biology. I’m excited about the potential of the Next Generation Science Standards to break the bounds of my existing biology class. Engineering is going to be integrated into biology in a way it never has been before.

This year’s sophomores, the students I currently have in class, are the first students to be required to pass the biology EOC in order to graduate–they will be taking this test in June. I find myself in the very odd position right now of talking about the adoption of the Next Generation Science Standards when at the very same time, this year, my students are facing a brand new biology EOC requirement based on the old state standards! Right now, considerable time and attention is being paid towards preparing students for this new biology EOC grad requirement. This shifting of school resources towards a high stakes biology EOC, focused on a single discipline in science, goes in the opposite direction of a transition to the broad based Next Generation Science Standards.

Where these new standards are going to meet with success or failure is in the classroom. To make these standards successful, we don’t just need teachers to adopt the standards–what we need is for teachers to hijack them. I mean that in the most positive way–teachers need to grab those standards, make them our own, and use them to improve student learning and our science education system.

However, it’s not going to be a true hijacking, because we as teachers cannot fly this next generation spaceship alone–we are going to need professional development, time, and support–from our districts, from OSPI, and from you, our legislators.

Testimony (4 minutes, starting at 25:43):

Representative Monica Stonier also wanted to know about transitioning standards and high stakes testing. (30 seconds, starting at 32:15)


Interested in what a regional science coordinator, an instructional coach, or some of the folks at OSPI had to say about these standards? Listen to the rest of the House Education Committee meeting.


Moving to a new blog!

I’m moving to a new blog–I’m now writing for the Center for Strengthening the Teaching Profession’s Stories from School blog. It’s a great group blog about practice and policy in Washington schools—come check it out. It’s written by teachers from all over Washington state. Here’s my first post!

Accountability at what cost? The Biology End of Course Exam

stories from school

I may still occasionally post here from time to time. Thanks for reading!

Next Generation Science Standards: Lost in Space?

Please note (April 11, 2013): The following blog post was written after reading the first draft of the Next Generation Science Standards last year. I have since been involved in multiple feedback sessions, and it has been gratifying to see how our feedback has been used in the final standards–I am now quite supportive of them.

May 2012 Blog Post: I had high hopes for the national Next Generation Science Standards. Still do. Excitement around a strong set of science standards could guide teaching and learning, promote collaboration, and lead to reasonable assessment. However, after spending time reviewing them and talking with colleagues, my concerns are growing greater all the time. What am I worried about? Well here are my three primary issues:


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

New Math and Science Teaching Certificate Renewal Requirements coming soon!

Chimacum students integrate science with technology by using column chromatography to isolate green fluorescent protein from bacteria.

Think the special session was just about the budget?  Well think again.

The week before the special session ended, House Bill 2160 was introduced and then passed. Governor Gregoire signed it into law. What does this bill do? Among other things, it requires the Professional Educator Standards Board to change the teaching certificate RENEWAL requirements for all teachers at the elementary and secondary level who are associated with science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM). It mandates a focus on STEM integration as a requirement for teacher certification renewal. As most elementary teachers are general ed teachers whose assignment includes subjects such as science and math, this affects a lot of teachers!

Here’s part of the text of the new law:

Sec. 3. The professional educator standards board shall revise certificate renewal rules for teachers at the elementary and secondary levels in STEM-related subjects by September 1, 2014. The revised rules shall include the requirement that continuing education or professional growth plans for these teachers include a specific focus on the integration of science, mathematics, technology, and engineering instruction.

Why would I possibly be concerned about this? I completely support the intent of this legislation. I truly believe that science education is at its best when it is integrated—with science process skills used to learn content, and the various science disciplines—physical science, life science, earth science—taught together. That is one of my main concerns with Washington’s move to a biology end-of-course exam—it promotes a single discipline, biology, to the detriment not only of other specific science disciplines but also to the detriment of integrated science study. Should this integration be included in teacher professional development? Yes, of course.

My three concerns with the new requirement renewal: (1) The fiscal note attached to this bill blithely reads, “No fiscal impact.” However, clearly, it will not be free to reeducate the entire teacher workforce impacted by this bill. By “No fiscal impact,” it means no cost to state coffers. So who will absorb this cost? Well, likely the teachers themselves. Summary of testimony at the House Education Committee hearing on this bill includes, “It is worth remembering that neither the state nor districts have resources to provide professional development opportunities for current teachers.” State math and science professional development funds which existed a few years ago no longer are around. This new requirement with no designated funds attached means the teachers will bear the costs.

(2) Teachers who now hold continuing or professional certificates have two options for renewal: 150 clock hours or National Board Certification. What might the new renewal requirements mean for these teachers? Perhaps clock hour courses which fulfill the integration requirement will be offered—again, this is a cost usually carried by teachers. Will National Board Certification or National Board Renewal, both rigorous processes, be enough to satisfy this new requirement? Or will there be another requirement and cost on top of this? The Professional Educator Standards Board (PESB) will be dealing with these issues as they put together the new rules.

(3) This law also mentions the option of incorporating the integration requirement into a teacher’s Professional Growth Plan, a component of teacher evaluation. This could be a fantastic idea, with one caveat: Washington state is currently reworking the entire teacher evaluation system. Putting into law any add-ons to teacher evaluation at this point is a bit preliminary—we don’t even know what a Professional Growth Plan under the new system will look like yet!

HB 2160 also addresses new standards for the elementary endorsement and secondary math and science teacher endorsements. It reads:

Sec. 1. The revised standards shall be aligned, as appropriate, with the biology end-of-course assessment, and the 2012 student science learning standards developed from the conceptual framework for science education and next generation standards and related student performance expectations.

My concerns:

  1. Alignment to the biology end-of-course exam. The alignment of integrated STEM teacher certification standards to a narrowly focused end-of-course exam in biology is nonsensical. The very idea of doing this highlights the main problem with having a high stakes exam in a single discipline. Not only does it focus student learning on biology, but it also, through this new law, drives professional development in this direction. The stated purpose of this law is to “revise standards and assessments for teacher certification integrating STEM knowledge and skills.” To align to the biology EOC exam seems completely contrary to the whole intent of any integrated STEM initiative.
  2. Alignment to the Next Generation Science standards. So those Next Generation Science Standards? They only exist in an unfinished early draft form. In addition, while Washington state has been a leader in this effort, they certainly have not yet been adopted. What kind of idea is it to align teaching endorsements to standards that don’t yet even exist? This presupposes that the standards will be of high quality and will be adopted by Washington state. Both of these things are likely true, but let’s wait until we can at least see the complete standards before we start aligning teaching endorsements to them!
  3. The somewhat sloppy wording in this bill lumps together the biology EOC, which is an assessment, with the Next Generation Science standards. Student learning standards and student assessments are very different things, and neither one here was ever designed for alignment with teacher endorsements!

The impact of this new law will all be in the interpretation by the Professional Educator Standards Board and in the subsequent implementation. Meaningful integration of science, technology, engineering, and math needs to happen in teacher professional development, and we need to be aggressive about that in Washington state. However, for this to happen, resources need to be provided, and alignment to any standards needs to happen in a reasonable way.

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.

Stand for Children & Coalition present ‘People’s Plan’ for Washington Education

Excellent Schools? We all want them–and many excellent schools already exist in our state.  Excellent Schools NOW?  It’s not going to happen now, it’s going to take time and hard work.   A coalition that names itself Excellent Schools Now therefore deserves some extra attention as to their members, motives, and funding.   Who’s in this coalition?  Stand for Children, Teachers United, Partnership for Learning, Washington Business Roundtable, League of Education Voters, Washington Technology Industry Association, and many others.

The other day I had the opportunity to attend an event to provide feedback to the Excellent Schools Now (ESN) coalition on their legislative agenda for next year.  It was named the People’s Plan.  We met in a well-appointed hotel conference room with wine and fancy chocolate. There were about 15 teachers and perhaps about 12 community members present.  We had all been given a draft of the ESN’s “People’s Plan for Education” so we could read it beforehand.

An open question, well articulated by another teacher present:  Did the ESN coalition actually want teacher input into their legislative plan, or did they just want to say they had consulted teachers in formulating this plan?  The lack of transparency in the creation and feedback process of their plan (Where was this plan coming from? What was going to happen next?) and the vague doublespeak of much of the language in the plan led many present to believe that perhaps this group just wanted to state that they had consulted teachers.

The agenda for the evening involved two rounds of small group discussion.  During the first round, I found myself seated at a table with about with about six teachers. The policy director of Stand for Children sat with us and listened in to the conversation; the leader of Teachers United acted as moderator and scribe.

Who are these people, and who wrote this plan?

This whole thing was called the ‘Peoples’ Plan.’  The title begs the question: So who are these people, and who wrote this plan?   The plan was developed by Education First Consulting. A political firm named Strategies 360  also seemed to play a role—one of their senior officers was emceeing the teacher input forum I attended.  Designating their legislative agenda as the “People’s Plan” did not seem to fit this coalition–even some of the organizers were saying this by the end of the evening forum.

Many of the points in the plan were versions of policy proposals we’ve been hearing from around the country in the past year.  Excellent Schools Now advocates for larger class sizes in their plan, just as Bill Gates did in a speech to the National Governor’s Association.

Who is funding these groups?  Well, in Washington state, Bill Gates is one of the major donors. The organizations in Excellent Schools Now do not just work on a state level: the Tacoma chapter of Stand for Children received a $150,000 grant from the Gates Foundation with the first goal of influencing local teacher contract negotiations there.

So what’s in this Plan?

At the first discussion table I sat at, the topic was listed as Teacher Job Rights: we discussed tenure, RIFs, and firing.  Tenure was the first confusing language issue we had.  Does tenure mean a teacher has a job forever, almost no matter what; or does tenure just mean that a certain process is followed before a teacher is dismissed? How tenure is defined matters when discussing these matters, and tenure was not defined at this forum.

One point in the People’s Plan concerning dismissal was to “Establish an expedited hearing and appeals process.”    What “expedited” means was not specified by ESN, and because it was so vague, it was virtually impossible to discuss in a reasonable manner.  Another point was “Allow cause for dismissal to be lack of available, applicable positions.”  Does this mean a district can decide a certain teaching position is no longer necessary and then dismiss that teacher, even if that teacher has been there 15 years?  That certainly seems to allow for arbitrary firings–and furthermore, this dismissal process will be ‘expedited’?

Teachers who are not doing their job should not remain in the classroom, but due process should be followed in dismissal.  However, teachers are in a relatively public position, open to criticism by many, and if teachers have no job security, no one will want to be a teacher.  We are already having a hard enough time recruiting great new teachers.

During the next discussion round, I was at the Teacher Evaluation table.   Much of the ‘People’s Plan’ was supportive of many parts of the Washington’s Teacher Principal Evaluation Pilot, which is a good thing.  However, while TPEP seems to focus on whole teacher evaluation, much of the People’s Plan focused on “measures” which seemed to mean test scores. The ESN coalition would have a statewide panel “identify appropriate measures in untested subject and grades.”  In other states, this has resulted in extreme amounts of testing and some ludicrous testing requirements in subjects like physical education which would tie PE teacher evaluations to the health of their students.  Not only teachers would be evaluated by test scores—schools and districts are included as well: The People’s Plan depends on implementing a “growth model to compare student learning gains across the state, disaggregated for individual classrooms, schools, and districts.”

I didn’t have a chance to participate in other discussions, such as that at the Teacher Compensation table. The People’s Plan starts off on a nice note, stating, “increase beginning teachers’ salaries to make the profession more appealing to newcomers.”  However, apparently after you get that new higher beginning salary, that’s all you’re going to get, because it also suggests to “remove the salary enhancement for master’s degrees.”  National Board Certification is also not included in the People’s Plan.  Teaching is an education profession.   Shouldn’t higher education and professional development be encouraged?

Instead of the current salary allocation model, ESN proposed an amorphous four step “career ladder” but never described it with any detail, so I can’t comment on it.

Even worse than some of the vague language was the doublespeak.  In a prime example, the People’s Plan has a section concerning the establishment of “transformation zones.”  Close reading reveals that “transformation zone” actually seems to mean “charter school.”  How are these “zones” going to be “transformed”?  Through the reduction and elimination of collective bargaining, of course.   The People’s Plan states: “All schools in Zones will be expected to renegotiate or request waivers from union contracts in order to meet the needs of students in their building.”  Can’t student needs be met through working with teachers?  Wisconsin, here we come!

On a personal note, many of the ESN coalition organizations were very vocal in last year’s legislative session in wanting to maintain the science assessment graduation requirement for the class of 2013.  Maintaining the requirement would have meant students would be responsible for two completely different sets of science standards in their high school career–an injustice.  Students who did not pass a science exam would have had to pass a biology end-of-course exam.  This end-of-course exam would not have been given at the end of their biology course, but instead, a full year later.  This defied common sense.

Rather than address these logical issues, the ESN coalition members’ entire argument was that delaying the science requirement was lowering standards for our students.  Holding students responsible for a test, even when that test makes no sense, is not, in my opinion, a valid way to have high standards.  Conversely, advocating for a delay so that a more fair test can be administered is not the same as advocating for lower standards. Their argument left me personally offended.

The Excellent Schools Now People’s Plan seems to follow in the same vein as their science assessment arguments last year–rather than cooperation with teachers, there seems to be a pattern of suspicion and blame.  Inviting a few teachers to a forum to provide input on a legislative agenda, as ESN did last week, is a good start.  Seeking input from even more teachers, and then honestly considering that feedback and incorporating it, would be an even better next step.  The only way to reform education in Washington state is to work with teachers, not against them.

How about that state education budget?

Our state legislature is now in special session.  Their main goal?  Come to agreement on a budget.  It’s not all about the money, however.  Policy bills that have long since died in committee have been resurrected at the beginning of this special session as NTIB, or necessary to implement the budget.

Here’s my take on a few of the budget highlights, (or lowlights as the case may be) and some of the policy embedded in it.

Compensation and Certification:

Salaries: The house proposes freezing step increases for years of experience and education completed, cutting $56 million.  The senate proposes a 3% reduction in state funding for salaries, cutting $261 million.  In a true case of passing the buck without passing along any money, the senate then leaves it up to local districts to negotiate the details of making this 3% cut work.  The governor proposes a 1.9% decrease instead of the senate’s 3%, saying teachers have already had a 1.1% cut from the loss of LID days.

Given that the house cuts so much less overall than the senate, the house proposal seems preferable, right?  Well, probably.  However, the value of master’s degrees and years of teaching experience has been hotly debated in our state and around the nation this spring. While no legislation on this passed this year, it is definitely being considered for the future. The senate did pass HB1443, sponsored by Senator Rodney Tom, which establishes a work group to study “how to reduce the number of tiers within the existing salary allocation model.”  Earlier this year he proposed limiting the number of years of experience on the salary schedule to eight, and limiting salary increases for masters degrees to math and science teachers.

Teaching is the only profession I know of where you are expected to work the last 15 years of your career with no hope of a raise.  Also, shouldn’t all teachers be encouraged to improve their practice through further education?  If salary steps are frozen while a workgroup studies reducing them permanently, that paves the way for future legislation.  How are outstanding new teachers ever going to be attracted to the profession with such a system?

Cost of Living Allowances:  A bill with the fun title of “Reducing Compensation for Educational Employees” would suspend the COLAs for another two years.  The house, senate, and governor plan to do this.  The COLA, initiative 732, was approved by voters in 2000, but has now been suspended for 4 years.

National Board Certification is a rigorous professional development program which focuses on making  a positive impact on student learning.  About 10% of teachers in Washington are nationally certified. Stipends for National Board Certification have been in place in Washington state since 1999.  Losing this stipend would be an approximate 10% pay cut to a teacher in the middle of the salary schedule, ON TOP OF all the other pay cuts faced by teachers this year.  The house would more or less keep them intact, the senate would make severe cuts, and the governor would suspend these completely.

Curently, it is free to renew a continuing (clock hour) certificate.  HB 1449 would impose a processing fee for this and other certification events.  This bill has passed the house and may soon pass the senate.  If you need to renew, right now might be the time!

Teacher Evaluation:

The Teacher Principal Evaluation Pilot (TPEP) was instituted last year by our legislature, and will be fully implemented in the 2013-14 school year.  With increasing class sizes, and decreasing school resources and salaries, should teachers be held to new and possibly higher standards?  Should money be spent on piloting a new evaluation system?  Well, my initial response to these two questions was a resounding “No,” but on further reflection I think my answer is probably “Yes.”

Why? Our previous evaluation system was over 25 years old and needed to be overhauled.  Some of the old categories such as “Interest in teaching students” were ambiguous and seemed difficult to assess.  In addition, there has been an extremely high level of collaboration between teachers, principals, superintendents, school boards, OSPI, and communities in developing this new system.  It would be a shame to put an end to the cooperation and work that has taken place so far.  I still have serious concerns, however, with the new criterion of “using multiple student data elements” especially when that is defined as “change in student achievement between two points in time.”  It will be interesting to see how the pilot districts deal with this.

The governor would maintain the TPEP program, while the senate would expand the number of pilot districts. The house would offer incentive grants to early adopting districts.

Senator Rodney Tom’s HB1443 amendment again rears its ugly head with teacher evaluation.  This bill would RIF teachers by evaluation, starting this year.  However, the new evaluation system is not yet even in place!  Districts are still using the old evaluation system that everyone agrees needs to be replaced, and teachers would be RIFed under this old system.  Is our old evaluation system up to this RIF task?

Using evaluations for RIFing would undermine the collaborative work that has been accomplished to date on the new teacher evaluation system.  1443 restricts collective bargaining rights; local policies regarding RIFs would be superseded by a one-size-fits-all plan for the entire state.  Districts already have procedures in place for removing low performing teachers–if those procedures are not working, then they should be modified.  If a teacher does not fulfill their duties and then is unwillling or unable to improve, then they should not be in our schools.  However, due process should be followed when a teacher is terminated, and a RIF action should not be a substitute for this.

So HB1443 passed the senate, but does it have a chance when it heads back to the house for approval of the amendments?  Bills with more extreme versions of these evaluation/RIF/salary ideas made little headway in the house earlier in the session, but we’ll see what kind of support 1443 has.

Student Assessment:

Science Assessment: The House Education Committee is hearing a substitute to HB 1410 on Monday, May 9.  Will there be a biology end of course exam or a comprehensive science test next year?  If the test is comprehensive, will earth science be given the boot?  How about the sophomores I have in class right now–do they or do they not need to have passed the science HSPE they took in April to graduate?  One possibility is requiring students who fail it to take a third year of science–but many districts may not have the appropriate course offerings, staffing, or resources for this.  If there are so many questions and uncertainty regarding this exam, why is it all being carried out in such a high stakes environment?

The HB1443 chimera doesn’t stop at dealing with teacher salaries, evaluation, and RIFs.  It goes on to science assessment, proposing an as yet unwritten comprehensive test for next year, and an expensive third year science requirement for students who fail the test.

WAKids:  Standardized testing for the young’uns?  Well–sort of.  This standardized kindergarten readiness assessment is intended to inform instruction, and passed the house and senate.  It would only be required in state-funded full day kindergartens.  The bigger question:  When will the state fund full day kindergarten?

Special Ed assessment:  HB1519 modifies the assessment (the WAAS) for students with significant cognitive disabilities so that it can more closely match an individual student’s IEP goals.  Supported by OSPI and the WEA, passed by the legislature, signed by the governor.

Math: The number of math end-of-course exams required for graduation by this year’s sophomores and freshmen was reduced from 2 to 1.  Good for the students and also saves money.  Passed and signed.

Class size: Both the house and senate would eliminate K-4 class size funding and I-728 money.

What’s Next?

The May 15 RIF deadline is almost here–however, HB 2110 is being heard May 9, and would extend the RIF deadline to June 15.  It would be difficult, but not impossible, for this bill to pass in time to affect this school year, but this would allow for implementation of Senator Tom’s RIF by evaluation amendment.  What is truly terrible is that RIFs will happen, however and whenever they do, leaving us with fewer teachers for our students.

It’s not all up to the legislators.  Washington voters passed I-1053 last November, which requires a two-thirds majority of the legislature to even make minor changes in the amount of taxes.  This allows a minority to veto the decisions of the majority.  A budget has two parts: expenses and revenue.  Both must be examined in order to provide a fully functioning education system. Washington state educators need to make their opinions heard, through their voice and through their votes.

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.