It's a new school year. I'm teaching biology and chemistry, classes I have taught for years. This year, however, there is something new--this year, for the first time, my tenth graders are required to pass the Washington state biology end-of-course exam in order to graduate.
My concern is that a high stakes exam that focuses only on biology narrows the curriculum to the detriment of chemistry, physics, and earth science. The problem?
When schools feel pressure to have all their students meet one goal in science, and that goal is biology, other science disciplines fall by the wayside and receive less in resources and attention. One of my most successful lessons from last year involved students extracting muscle proteins from salmon from a local creek and then using electrophoresis to figure out how closely related the fish were. This project involved elements of biology, chemistry, and technology—comprehensive science, not just a single discipline!
Another teacher at my school has a great new science class: Materials Science. Students investigate questions like why airplanes are now made of carbon fiber composites instead of the traditional aluminum. Students design and build incredible items, combining a variety of materials in unique ways. What does Materials Science not cover? The state biology standards! We have limited resources and room in the schedule for science classes. When students do not pass the biology end of course exam, and then quite likely will have to take some sort of remedial biology class in order to prepare to retake the exam, will there still be enough staffing and students for courses like Materials Science?
District level disruption of comprehensive science programs in order to accommodate the state biology exam has already started. One district had a new science course last year: not biotechnology, not materials science, not water quality: no, their new science course was "Biology EOC Test Prep." In another district, the science teachers worked hard to develop an innovative integrated science program. With the onset of this new graduation requirement, however, they had to abandon the integrated science program in tenth grade in order to focus on biology. There is a national requirement to administer a science exam, but it is a state decision to require it for graduation.
The argument in favor of the graduation requirement condition of the biology exam has been accountability: that students, teachers, and schools need to be held to high standards. But accountability at what cost? Accountability in the form of a biology end of course exam that, as an unintended consequence, narrows the state science curriculum is not the type of accountability that we need!
The irony is that in the past two years, as our state has moved from a comprehensive science assessment to one focused solely on biology, there has been a concurrent state and national movement towards integrated STEM education: science, technology, engineering, and math. Our state’s high stakes biology assessment runs contrary to that STEM path.
In the next few years, we will likely have comprehensive assessments based on the Next Generation Science Standards. One possible solution until the Next Generation assessments? Let’s keep administering the biology end of course exam, but not require it for graduation. Teachers and schools could still use the exam results to inform instruction, but we wouldn’t have the high stakes nature of a biology graduation test distorting comprehensive science education in our state. I and the teachers around me want to prepare students to integrate science in innovative ways into their jobs and lives, and not just focus on biology!