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.

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:


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.