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:

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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.