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.