...of the academic year, that is, for us California high school teachers.
I haven't posted much lately. There's a reason for that.
It's called the CST's. (California State Tests) These are those all-important content-area tests that are used to evaluate school performance and---if some people at the federal level 'Racing To The Top' had their way---to evaluate individual teachers.
I won't bore you with the reasons why teachers as a group don't care for the latter proposal. The point is, like it or not, we are getting closer to the 'drill-and-kill' part of the educational process. Beginning on Monday, I have five days of instruction left before Spring Break.
That gets me started on my unit on evolution right before Holy Week. (Yes, the irony is apparent.)
Anyway, after I return on April 6th, I have at that point about nine days to complete that unit. The CST's for my district begin on the 20th, and during that time frame I'll have perhaps 4-5 days to review everything that's been covered up to this point.
And you know what? This is going to sound sad, but I am actually thrilled. This is the first year that I know that I'll have a meaningful chunk of time to prep for the test where my Biology classes are concerned. The state standards in this area are long, multifaceted and nigh-impossible to cram into the chunk of instructional time we are given. Why do I say that? Well, in the first place, in order to learn biology you need a certain amount of basic chemistry. Students in California, in particular, are supposed to learn the following in eighth grade:
In a perfect world, students retain all this information. In this perfect world, students also recall what they learned about ecosystems and food chains in the fourth grade, photosynthesis and cellular respiration in the fifth grade, plate tectonics in the sixth grade and evolution and cellular structure in the seventh grade.
But guess what? This perfect world doesn't exist, and the majority of my students are unable to correctly answer questions about what they were supposed to have learned in science in K-8, particularly Grades 4-6. Why? Because there is really no mechanism to ensure that California public schools throughly cover their own standards.
This speaks volumes about what passes for science education in the lower grades, which increasingly have been evaluated on just two things: language arts and math scores, to the point where K-8 science education is actually at risk. Read this 2007 article from the SF Chronicle by Natalie Asimov and reflect on this: as bad as things are described in this piece, this was from three years ago and nothing has changed during that time. If anything, the situation has become more acute.
Perhaps in response to that, the Obama Administration has made a proposal that the current federal guidelines be tweaked to allow states to start using assessments other than language arts and math to evaluate the progress of public schools:
Mr. President, that's music to this teacher's ears---but even if this gains bipartisan approval, it will probably be another two years before we see any implementation. There's no real help on the horizon yet.
Oh, and in addition to all that, there are things that students need which are not explicitly in the standards. Take, for example, ions---which, in case you don't know, are atoms or molecules which are not electrically-neutral, but which have an overall charge. (Here's hoping everyone knew that)
It turns out that the concept of an ion does not appear in the K-8 science standards. It is barely even hinted at in the biology standards. But, if you don't know about ions, you can't explain acids or bases. You can't explain ionic bonding, nor can you be said to really understand covalent bonding, since it involves the sharing of charged particles to complete energy levels in the various atoms. So you can't really be said to understand hardly anything that's happening at the molecular level. You can't explain the sodium-potassium pump that is such a big part of an organism's energy budget. You can't explain why nerves fire, or muscles twitch, or hearts beat.
So, the bottom line is this: I lose at least 2-3 weeks at the beginning of each year in Biology classes making sure that the critical knowledge from previous grade levels needed to teach the Biology standards is retaught. And, throughout the year, I'm going to have to spend significant amounts of time recapitulating what is assumed to be prior knowledge, but often isn't. My guess is that I lose another 2-3 weeks of instructional time to such concerns between the first day of school and the testing window.
One more thing: when I teach the Evolution portion of the Biology standards, I often encounter another problem. Most of the science instructional minutes in K-8 is taught by teachers who do not have any commitment to teaching science, much less a degree as required by NCLB for high school instructors. The vast majority of middle-school 'science teachers' in this state hired before 1996 do not, in fact, have a science or technical degree. They have been 'grandfathered' in by various means. That doesn't mean that most of them aren't reasonably competent: most are...until it comes to something that is potentially divisive, like evolution.
Please don't act shocked when I remark that, regardless of what the standards say should be taught at the various grade levels, that evolution is typically either not taught or taught poorly. Evolution is explicitly covered in the seventh grade standards, and while the word does not appear in K-6 standards, it is clear that there are items in there intended to set the foundation for future science courses. The Grade 2 standards talk about how fossils provide evidence about the Earth's past history, the Grade 3 standards reference extinction and how some extinct organisms resemble living species, etc.
If you are an otherwise-exemplary K-6 instructor who privately holds creationist views, you would probably understand that it is inappropriate and possibly illegal to teach your personal views as science. But, since your school site is not going to be evaluated by its science test scores, there is very little pressure on you to teach every science standard. How tempting it would be simply not to cover a topic that is potentially divisive and which makes you personally uncomfortable? Far easier, in fact, just to deemphasize or even scratch those lessons in particular to carve out more instructional time for the language arts and math lessons whose outcomes will be used to assess your school site performance!
Well, I'm in the high schools. I pick up the pieces on what students know and don't know, and it's my job to 'modify and adjust' instruction to fit the needs of students so that they will be able to achieve on this year's science test. So I'll do my job. But, given all the extra time lost, one would think that we be given as much time as possible to prepare and give the dreaded state tests at the very end of the school year, maximizing our instructional time.
Nope. Here's the current school calendar for my district:
We have 180 instructional days. But the CST window begins on April 19th, and the AP testing window on the 3rd of May. In practice, districts will not schedule CST testing and AP testing at the same time. So the real deadline for the CST's is the last day of the testing window that doesn't overlap the AP window.
There are 30 instructional days following the last day of CST testing at my school site. The CST's at my school site are spread out over four days over two weeks. So that is a total of 34 instructional days not available to prepare for the CST's, or 18.8 percent of the school year. Couple that with the four weeks of instruction sacrificed during the year to reteach previous standards, and that leaves just 70 percent of the academic year to prepare for 100 percent of the standards.
So that's why I feel like I'm in a 'stretch drive.' I have a limited opportunity window to prep for the CST's, and I have to bear down and make sure I give myself the time to do it. And, like I say, I'm thrilled to have more time in the past. Will this allow my students to do significantly better on the test? Who knows, but I am going to be working like nobody's business under the assumption that they can do better.