My blogging has trickled to a stop, in part because I had been wondering if I had anything new to say about the main issues that motivated me to start blogging in the first place. So much has changed in my life, and yet, as far as science education is concerned, so little. Americans are still confused about the difference between science and belief, and a depressingly large number of them neither accept the fact of evolution nor the need to ensure that the theory of evolution by natural selection (TENS) continues to be taught in the public schools.
At the same time, this last semester (and the ensuing six weeks, wherein I taught summer school) has made matters come to a head. It's time for me to start blogging again, even if I don't have any substantial new inroads to report on science education in my area. It's time for me to start doing things like this again, because I am becoming bored with certain aspects of my life, including my work setting. I enjoy teaching, but I am in danger of falling into a rut. I need to make some changes. I need to do more in some areas, but in all frankness I need to give less energy to some of the aspects of teaching that are increasingly robbing me of joy and productiveness. As a friend in high school once said (in a more colorful fashion), you have to make sure the, um, screwing is worth all the...you guessed it....screwing.
So, with that in mind, I've decided to review my own job performance for the last 11 years of teaching biology and other science coursework. What happened? How did I get to Point B from Point A? Most importantly, what has changed, has it changed for the better, and what can I do about it in order to feel useful, productive and (frankly) engaged? I don't want to burn out before I'm 50. Lord knows I see enough colleagues who are just going through the motions after this point, and I would rather do something else with my life than attempt to 'fake the funk' from now until retirement. If I taught for another 11 years, that would be fine, as long as it was as interesting and rewarding as it was prior to 2008.
But I'm getting ahead of myself. The final impetus to publicly return to blogging occurred a few hours ago in my unoccupied classroom, the day after the final session of Summer School ended. I was tidying up the relics of the last few years, including....tests. Lots and lots of tests, written by me, in order to assess student performance in whatever course or courses I was teaching at the time.
That includes, in the order I taught them: Physics, Biology, Earth Science, Chemistry and Environmental Science. All of these were standards-based courses that had a state test to go with them. Three of them (Biology, Chemistry and Physics) count as laboratory science courses on the (a-g) standards for the University of California. All of them count towards my school district's requirement that students have three years of high school science. In each course, every year, I would give 9-12 unit tests which varied considerably in length and difficulty, depending in part on the subject matter, the student population that semester and the intellectual climate of the year in question. Each test typically had two versions to discourage cheating. I rarely reused tests, but typically rewrote them every year, often keeping some of the same assessment items, albeit rearrange and rewritten. Thus, each test represents a substantial investment of time in writing, and (especially in the case of Biology and Physics) rewriting.
For example, here is a shot that shows collated copies of the Physics tests that I wrote between the fall of 2000 and the spring of 2003, three years of refinement to teach the state standards in Physics. My degree is in the Natural Sciences. It's supposed to be a teaching degree, which means that I had a year of undergraduate physics coursework, plus an astronomy class. I was initially hired to teach sections of Physics and Biology with my degree, which was supposed to qualify me to teach any introductory science class in the state of California. (This was before NCLB became the be-all and end-all of teacher evaluations in this state). Anyway, if you click on the image, you'll see three years worth of the tests of which I'm bothering to keep a few copies. This does not represent all the tests I wrote, just a sample arranged in order to give me an idea what I did when, and (hopefully) help me learn from the experience.
In any and all cases, far more tests were thrown away than were ever kept. As I type this, I need to take some of these piles out to the recycling bins. By the way, the different colors serve two purposes: first, they allow me to distinguish tests within the same year from one another; second, they allow me (and my students) to distinguish at a glance which version of the test they are taking. Each clipped pile actually contains at least two different versions, sometimes (as with a semester final) three. So the above shot, just of Physics tests, actually represents about fifty (!) separate tests. This is just skimming the cream. The rest.....
....into the trash. If you do a little math, you'll recognize that this represents about 16 tests a year. When I began my teaching career, I had a little scheme all mapped out: two regular tests per each quarter, and a final, for a total of six per semester, twelve per academic year. Keep in mind that every time I'm writing a test, I'm writing at least two versions, so it's really 24 per year.
Now, I'm not claiming that each and every one of these tests is an original pearl, full-blown from the head of Zeus. In fact, after the first year, I began recycling questions. The rewriting process is an editing process. Over time, some questions seem more pertinent to the way that I actually teach, or do a better job of encapsulating some key concept and/or state standard. Also, one realizes as you go that you can do things with a test besides assess content knowledge. You can assess effort and obtain documentation about student choices. Over time, I reformatted my tests to improve their readability. I added questions with embedded graphics: charts, maps, and other images. I fussed continually not only with the general length of the test, but the relative emphasis of the various sections. From the very beginning, I have held that a simple, straightforward multiple-choice exam graded by a SCANTRON was not 'the level playing field' desired. There are always a certain number of students who are good at taking such tests, prepared or otherwise. So I would always add other types of assessments.
As you develop assessments, the inner dialogue begins: Lengthen or trim this section? Could this be reworded for clarity? Is there a concept that I am not covering well? Why do students consistently bomb this question? Should I be concerned that most don't get this question, or not? Should I reorder the section? What items to place on an answer sheet?
Hopefully the point is clear. When you rewrite tests, you are engaged in a process of assessment: assessing the course as you teach it, assessing the state standards, comparing what you've taught with what you want them to know and (sigh) what the state expects that they will know, as encompassed in the standards. If every teacher was writing and rewriting their own tests all the time in this sort of process, there would be little need for additional reflection on their own practice. This is a point that many people who are critical of 'teaching to the test' seem to miss. If you write your own tests, then teaching to the tests that you write is not mindless, but inherently self-reflective. Self-assessment through continual reinvention of your student's assessments in light of what your are teaching is far more revealing than any contrived activity mandated, top-down, by whatever hierarchy you are in, precisely because it is authentic.
The short version: While I know that there are many teachers who use the tests from the textbooks, and who simply recycle their tests from year to year, I'm not one of those people. It is those teachers whose 'teaching to the test' tends to be mindless. For me, it comes down to this: which is more likely to be an accurate and fair assessment? Drawing up a list of questions that you want to be answered, and drilling the answers into students? Or, teaching what is needed for conceptual understanding, and then crafting the assessment based upon the most recently-completed rounds of instruction?
I think you know how I would answer that question. It is an irony, then, that I have become disillusioned with the 'standards-based' reform movement's emphasis on testing. My teaching career began as these reforms were being implemented, and initially I felt I was very well aligned with that movement. The truth is, I was and remain a believer in the high-stakes test. After all, when I began my career, I intended to have 12 of them per year. Each test would take up an entire instructional period. I would give additional time at lunch and after school for those who needed it on exam days. Every test would be prepared with a Study Guide given out 2-3 days in advance of the exam date. I would almost always have a Study Session based on that Study Guide after school the day before the scheduled exam, and shamelessly bribe students to attend that Study Session. My internal logic came down to this: since my approach to writing exams involved multiple parts and continual self-assessment, I was heavily invested in the tests. Therefore, I wanted my students to be heavily invested in them. Not only did I weight them heavily, but I used significant time in the school year to prepare and administer them.
That is not, however, what most of my colleagues do. They don't invest much time in preparing or administering tests. They build what are, in my opinion, low-quality assessments that are intended to be administered in half a period, and they do so by "cutting-and-pasting" pre-fabricated questions, almost all of them multiple-choice, from the textbook or associated materials. The attitude seems to be: "Professionals have already developed questions for us to use, so why reinvent the wheel?"
Well. Duh. In order to be creative, authentic professionals yourselves. This is not to say that my colleagues aren't professionals, or shouldn't be treated as such, or that I have nothing to learn from them. Quite the contrary. I genuinely feel that in the first 6-7 years of teaching, that my colleagues were superior to me in some aspects of instruction, most notably setting up and evaluating labs and other classroom activities. I learned much that was valuable by observing them. I know that in such aspects I can still profit immensely from the experience of other veteran teachers.
I have yet, however to find another high school teacher whose tests struck me as either skilled or thoughtful. I am particularly put off by questions from the textbooks, which are invariably simplistic and misleading. And I find myself continually out of step with the agenda of most administrators and many teachers, because of the different ways in which I and others "script" the course, or as we often say, curricular sequence.
My colleagues at Bullard and throughout much of the educational system, most of them are doing their best to teach the students they are given with a series of scripts which were largely crafted for them: state standards, pacing guides, benchmark exams and departmental assessments (more on that stuff later). I, on the other hand, want to write my own script. I want the freedom to satisfy the standards following a curricular sequence that reflects my own continual self-assessment. That is what I used to do most of the time prior to the fall of 2008, and what I would prefer to do now. In my next post, I will explain why the intellectual climate within my district and my state is discouraging to me, and why I am ready to break with my past practice.