A press release, an op-ed, and a television interview—what’s up with all the media on Washington state assessment? Our Superintendent of Public Instruction just released a new proposal: reduce the number of exit exams required for high school graduation from five to three. This proposal shows concern for mitigating some of the negative effects of large amounts of testing on the Class of 2015, sophomores I currently have as students. Specifically, the number of math exams would be reduced from two to one, and reading and writing would be combined into a single exam. In science, however, the proposal would still move forward with a brand new graduation requirement this year focusing on biology. This means that not only will our state’s sole high school science exam be in biology, but the emphasis on biology will also be increased by making that exam high stakes.
Randy Dorn cited some excellent reasons for the overall reduction in assessments, saying “too much classroom time is devoted to preparing for tests, taking tests and preparing to retake tests.” He also noted the high cost of Washington’s assessment system.
However, there is another factor besides cost and time that comes into play here: assessment drives instruction. When there is a single high stakes science assessment, and that assessment is in biology, then chemistry, physics, and earth science will be neglected. An alternate idea: we could keep administering our existing biology EOC, which would satisfy federal requirements, but delink the biology EOC from graduation. Eliminating the graduation requirement would relieve the current pressure on schools, which, in many cases, is distorting high school science education to emphasize biology. Delinking the biology exam from graduation would also save a considerable amount of money in remediation, retakes, and rescoring. Most expenditures in education hold out some promise of benefit: this expenditure is actually detrimental to science education in our state by marginalizing chemistry, physics, earth science, and STEM.
Students themselves, knowing that biology is the single science exam required for their graduation, are questioning teachers: one of the ninth grade physical science students at my school asked their physical science teacher, "Shouldn't we be studying biology this year too so we can be extra ready for that EOC next year?" My email inbox over the last few weeks demonstrates that high stakes assessment drives the distribution of resources: there are numerous opportunities for professional development and other activities structured around the biology end of course exam. I also teach chemistry--let me tell you, not as much action there. Some school districts are giving surprisingly large numbers of teachers new job assignments in order to reconfigure science departments for tenth grade biology. Other districts are eliminating innovative integrated science programs in order to focus on the single discipline of biology in one grade.
Describing why changes need to be made to math and language arts assessments, Randy Dorn makes a good point: "The timing of this proposal makes sense. Washington is in the midst of changing its standards in math and English-language arts." However, using the same reasoning, the timing of a brand new biology graduation requirement this school year does NOT make sense: our state is in the midst of reviewing the Next Generation Science Standards. These new standards present some interesting challenges in science education: they are rigorous, integrated, and often provocative. Most certainly, however, the Next Generation Science Standards are not focused on a single discipline. Why compel a new focus now on biology in our state, with a single high stakes exam in that topic, when we know we will soon be moving to comprehensive science?
Science education in our state right now seems to be split in two directions: we have educators, organizations, and private foundations all working to enhance broad area science and STEM education for our students. At the same time, we have a state assessment system driving us in the opposite direction to a narrow focus on biology by enacting a new, high stakes biology end-of-course exam. Why are we working at cross-purposes?