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!

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.

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.