My White Whale

Honestly, I’ve never read Moby Dick, nor do I know if this reference is accurate, but hey, I’m a science teacher I’m going with it.

As I get more and more marking periods under my belt, collecting data points along the way, I’ve been able to find some interesting trends. Earlier this week a new trend came to light as I looked back on the marking periods of my past years. Every semester I come across an assignment, an assignment that I need to grade, an assignment that always finds its way to the bottom of the pile, an assignment I put off grading just one more day.

These assignments are what I’m calling my white whale, also known as the sperm whale, Physeter macrocephalus (couldn’t resist throwing some Marine Biology in there.) The elusive assignments that just can’t get graded.

Last year there was a set of constructed responses, yesterday I finally got through a stack of lab reports. I’ll tell you it’s a good feeling finally getting through them all, but its been about a month since I first collected the assignment, and I have taken FAR too long  to grade them.

I can’t quite put my finger what it is about the assignments. Sometimes they are longer assignments; while during other marking periods it’s a short assignments. I bring them back and forth between home and school, planning to grade them, but grade other assignments instead. I look at them, I shift them around from one folder to another, shuffle and reorganize them, but darned if I can get myself to sit down and just grade them.

During this whole time, as I dance with these assignments, I find I grade other assignments faster, a way to put off grading the white whale. But once I get through the new assignments, my brain is burned out and I push them off to the next day. Honestly, it’s quite an elaborate game I play with theses assignments.

Luckily, I average returning assignments the next day or two, and within the week for larger assignments. So, my students are forgiving. But, it does prevent me from catching up with students who have not done the assignment yet, certainly a downside as I try to make sure students are caught up on their work.

Looking at it maybe I’m the white whale, trying to escape, as the assignment is Ahab looming over me not letting me forget he’s there, unable to escape no matter how elaborately I try to dance around it. Either way, I wonder what the assignment will be next marking period, maybe this time I won’t let any of the assignments get the best of me and break the trend.

Maybe I should read Moby Dick. (If I’m going to reference it after all)

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My Top Picks for Science Fair 2012

            A standard part of the 10th grade Biology curriculum at my school is designing, conducting and presenting scientific research at the science fair. This serves as an excellent opportunity for students to work through the process of the scientific method thinking creatively and independently as they design their experiment.
          Since, for most students, this is their first inquiry based science fair project, versus building a model… like a volcano (classic), they are constantly supported throughout the process. Multiple instances of formative assessment as they first design their experimental question and hypothesis, continue on to the development and completion of the experimental procedure, and finally during the analysis and discussion of the result. They receive feedback and suggestions at each step, as well a guidance and deadlines to try to defeat the terrible foe: procrastination.
           As we start this process as a class I have put together some of my favorite experimental questions as posed by my 10th grade students. These are favorites because of the creativity, the topics, or it is based on something that significantly piqued my interested as well. The wording is their own after having adjusted it based on the original set of feedback I provided.
My science fair top picks for 2012:
  • Are green detergents actually less harmful to the environment?
  • Do weather conditions impact deer movement?
  • Does playing video games stimulate your brain in way to do math problem quicker?
  • Does the price of bottled water influence people’s decision on which water tastes better?
  • Does snacking prior to reading increase reading rate?
  • Which denomination of US Dollar bill has more bacteria on it?

With all students having created questions, the next step is determining, how will they test them? What will they learn? I’ll keep you posted.

A Time for ‘Cell’ebration!

Animal cell. Check out the actual phosopholipid bilayer of the plasma membrane.

This time of year opens up a can of worms for political correctness, emotional turmoil and distraction. Anyone who follows the media understands the sensitive nature of celebrating or recognizing religious holidays at public schools. Students experience a variety of emotions, many excited for the vacation ahead and the holidays, others in dread of spending a week at home in perhaps a not so good home situation. No matter the emotions, the week leading up to vacation is a wild one.

My method for working with all of these issues: celebrate for alternative reasons. It’s been a busy few months, I know my brain is ready for a break, so I am sure my students’ brains are as well. Thus, a perfect time to recognize the  hard work over the past months and take some time to breathe prior to midterm exams. To create this break we had our own personal ‘Cell’ebration.

Plant cell. Excellent 3D representation.

Given we are in the middle of our cell unit, students created edible cell models. Choosing to construct either a plant or an animal cell and represent those structures which define that type of cell. To accompany their model students either labeled or provided a key to identify how they represented all of the different organelles that would be found in their cell.

The final aspect of the assignment was that each student briefly presented, 1-2 minutes, how they made their cell, and what they used to represent each organelle. This provided an opportunity to practice cellular vocabulary and identifying the parts of the cell. By the end other students were helping each other with pronunciation of terms like golgi apparatus and rough endoplasmic reticulum.

Then we dug in. Enjoying the sweet reward of the past nights’ baking and decorating. A bit of happy downtime that all students got to experience. A Biology Cellebration.

It was a great day to be a teacher. I had the opportunity to watch as my student interacted in a low key, relaxed atmosphere. Many of the groups that have been defined throughout the year merged and enjoyed the time together. Though only a portion of the day was dedicated to science, the whole day was dedicated to our class community, something I feel is just as important.

I am glad I was able to create at least a few minutes out of the day when all students had something to smile about, and when you’ve got a piece of cell cake in one hand and cell cookie cake in the other that’s surely something to smile about.

Plant Cell. Yeah, that's two whole cakes.

A Future Worth Fighting For

My goal for my blog has always been to put out positive thoughts, ideas and experiences I have had as an educator. I focus on the positive and move beyond the negativity. However, there are somethings I can’t move beyond. My mind has been rolling over my thoughts, letting them fester for the past 5 days and it seems the only way to move on is to voice my outrage and support my colleague, my friend.

One of my best friends  has been working towards earning his teaching license tirelessly for the past 2.5 to 3 years. He has run into hurdle after hurdle. From having a program he was enrolled in cut, to finding out the program he enrolled in as an alternative would not actually lead to him receiving his preliminary license. Through these hurdles, among many smaller I’m sure he did not share with me, he has remained positive, dedicated, enthusiastic, and passionate in his desire to help make the education and lives of his students better.

He had figured out a plan, had flexed and went out on every limb, so that he could be working with students, taking classes, working a second job, and student teaching this spring. All in the hopes of that his hard work would soon pay off receiving his teaching endorsement in time to apply for jobs for next school year.

Last Friday he was given the option to resign from his position as a para-educator or be fired. His principal told him that he was not ‘contractually obligated’ to provide a reason. These were his choices.

Via online messages and status updates I knew something was wrong, but didn’t know what at the time. I was already going to Boston to visit him and other friends and found out from a third-party about the situation later Friday night.

When I saw my friend Saturday I could tell he was crushed. It was more than just losing a job. It shattered his dream, a house of cards he had worked so hard to build, all tumbling down. Just sitting with him, having him talk through what happened, I could physically feel the horrible feeling weighing down inside him building within my own stomach.

The only idea he had about any cause for the cut was that his supervising special educator had complained previously about lack of communication, but he was under the impression they had talked and come to common ground. *Note the two people working under this supervisor last year were also let go at the end of last school year. (Maybe a leadership issue…)

I have known this guy for 7 years. The entire portion of my life when I’ve had a well-developed frontal lobe, the part of the brain involved in judgement and good decision-making. Trust me, my life has only been better from the second I made the judgement to stick around this guy. Since his decision to become an educator having conversations with him about the students we work with, our passion, and our goals has becoming a common conversation every time we are together. Providing another thread that has strengthened our friendship. I would vouch for my friend in a second and know that all of his actions in the classroom are based on improving student learning.

I do not know all of the details. I do not work in his school. Still the idea that such a smart, passionate and hard-working individual could be put through what he has experience outrages me. In a field that is filled with aging professionals, on the verge of retirement when 401Ks rebound, many of whom are willing to change with the times, but some that are not so willing, how can we treat young professionals like this.

We need to foster a professional field that helps an individual succeed. A baseball team wouldn’t cut one of the best players in their farm league without due process and a good reason. So, why in education would we cut someone who is on the verge of moving from being a para to a licensed teacher, especially without a reasons. How can that person learn from a mistake, if there was one, if he doesn’t know what it is. To me it seems like bullshit (apologies) school politics that he was at the wrong end of. Maybe there is not legitimate reason, maybe his hard work makes someone  higher on the food chain look bad and they don’t like it. So, administration hides behind the contract, to soothe the squeaky wheel and making my friend the collateral.

I can’t help. I can’t change a thing. I wish I could, he deserves better. All I can say is buddy, get back on your horse and clear this hurdle and your time will come, it’s not our way of life to give up without a fight.

Importance of Open Dialogue: College

Friday the faculty and staff at my school had a special “School Pride Day.” Usually on Fridays we show our school spirit and pride by wearing our high school’s colors or apparel. This Friday was different, we were showing spirit and pride in the colleges or universities we have attended for undergraduate, graduate, and even a few doctoral degrees. So, without questions I was there in my favorite Saint Michael’s College hat and sweatshirt. The sweatshirt I purchased the day I visited campus and interviewed for acceptance, eight years ago this coming January (time flies).

The goal of this day was to help promote dialogue between students and teachers regarding higher education. To help increase awareness of more opportunities for continued education beyond the local colleges students are aware of. The target audience for these conversations was mostly juniors and seniors, those who are much closer to the process, but it was not limited to just those classes.

For me personally, and I’m sure many teachers out there,  one of the fears I had about opening up dialogue regarding college is that the conversation would instantly turn to topics like partying and drinking. Topics that juniors and seniors are curious about, but most likely have a skewed perspective on thanks to movies and the media. For me it came down to making sure the conversation happens in an appropriate manner, appropriate for school and between teacher and students, but also allows for a more accurate vision of what college means.

When my class of juniors and seniors arrived, toward the end of the day, the the first thing they said to me was that they hadn’t really talked with any other teachers about college. One student even said “I don’t think they got the point.” This motivated me to make sure I had a good, open, conversation with these 14 students, all but 1 being seniors. So, I opened the dialogue by asking for their questions about college. I chose a girl with her hand raised, who I knew would have an serious question to start us off:

“What was the hardest part of college?”

My brain instantly knew the answer, and as I formed my thoughts I knew this would be a perfect way to address what they were all dying to know, on my terms.

I responded that the hardest part of college was finding balance. Balancing academics, with the social aspects. In college it was a lot easier to find ways to distract yourself, procrastinate, or blow off work all together. It’s easy to do other things besides academics, with all of your friends living within a square half-mile or so, along with the fact that parents aren’t there to make sure you are doing your homework or studying, and that professors aren’t going to track you down at the end of class to let you know what late work you are missing.

As I elaborated on these ideas I was able to describe how I wasn’t a “nerd in the library every night” (their words), I made the best friends anyone could ask for and we made some great memories*, but I was also successful academically. We continued the conversation for close to 30 of the 42 minutes of the period. They continued to ask great questions about financial aid, where else I applied, how I chose Saint Mike’s. I didn’t end our discussion until I could tell it had transition into: now let’s just use up the rest of class.

After the class ended I felt good about our conversation. Students had questions answered, by someone still close to my own time in college, and it was a candid conversation. Most of all I feel like I was able to paint a portrait of college beyond that of Animal House and American Pie. I think by avoiding these conversations, just because they might be uncomfortable, it continues the problem. Instead, we should find ways to have these conversations in a manner that is honest and responsible.

 

*I dedicate this post to the gentlemen of 403 and Club Drome. Friends I’ll never forget.

Another Face of Ambition

I’ve been part of a few conversations lately regarding professional ambition. Most of  these conversations have been from the business perspective. In business someone puts in long hours, works hard to impress the ‘powers that be’ and hopefully you get a new, better job, a dream job. Better because it’s more interesting, engaging, exciting, or pays you more money. This person would probably be labeled as ambitious.  In the business would it’s a lot easier to see ambition, and see goals as they are achieved and new goals are made. You climb the corporate ladder, beating out the other man or woman, and you become more and more successful; the goal of the ambitious.

I believe that because this same ladder climbing doesn’t occur in education people have the misconception that teacher’s aren’t ambitious. Especially when they are portrayed in the media and then in peoples’ minds as simply wanting to find a good school to teach in and ride it out until retirement. This is false. Just because in education we as teachers are not pitted against each other (hopefully) to get ‘better’ jobs, or to compete for success in the same way as the business world, does not mean that we are not ambitious.

Some may say that part of climbing the ladder in education is getting seniority so that you can teach the ‘good’ classes, the honors or the AP. For some teachers this may be their ambition, but for me it isn’t. I currently teach students that have a huge variety of learning styles and academic skills, and that’s what I love about teaching: the variation. I love the challenge of finding ways to reach out to, connect with, and teach all students because all students deserve to have their lives enriched by science, by Biology.

Though it sounds corny and cliché this is my ambition: to make as many students lives better, as I can. To know that I played a role in providing them with knowledge and opportunities that would not have had otherwise. As I have thought about writing this post for the past few weeks, I’ve rolled my thoughts over and over in my head and realized it is not a ladder I wish to climb that marks my ambition, but a web I hope to build; a web of people. People, who I have taught, connected with and had an impact on their lives.

Being in my forth year this web has begun to form. In June, 2011, the sophomores I taught during my first year graduated, some moved on to college, other to careers. The seniors I taught in my first year of teaching are now juniors in college or into their third year of their job, volunteering or other post-high school options. In this short time my ambition has started to bear fruit, as I have several instances that I mark as achievements.

  1. December 2010: A ’09 graduate came back to visit me after completing her first semester at Maine Maritime Academy, where she is studying Marine Biology. She thanked me for everything she learned in my Marine Biology class, and told me it solidified her desire to be a Marine Biologist.
  2. October 2011: A ’11 graduate stopped by, just say ‘Hi’. He graduated last June and has been working at a heavy machinery repair shop. He was excited to tell me about all the different jobs and responsibilities he has in that job and reminisce about the class he took with me two years ago.
  3. October 2011: Two students, ’10 and ’11 graduates saw me from across the mall and came over to fill me in about the apartment hunt they were on, as well as the classes and nursing program they are enrolled in at UVM.
  4. November 2011: A ’10 grad, sophomore in college now, sent me a message wondering if I could send her a couple of the articles we had read in Marine Biology about the great Pacific Garbage Patch. She was studying it in one of her college courses and remember we had used to informative articles and websites.
  5. November 2011: I ran into a student who is now a freshman in college. She thanked me for making her work so hard in Human Biology because her Anatomy & Physiology class is a lot easier in college because she knows a lot of it already.

Each of these small occasions, plus many more, which occur day to day, mark times where I knew that I had impacted these people. My ambition to build a web of those who I have helped, taught, or made a difference to is progressing. At these times I am equally excited to hear specifically what the individual took from the class content, as I am to know that they have a connection with me that makes them want to share their life successes.

I invite educators to think about the web they are building and what qualities are you being remembered for. Is that the web you hope to leave behind? Finally, I urge non-educators to remember that just because our ambition has a different face, it is still there, and just as valuable.

Simply Inspired: LuminAID

I believe strongly in the ideas behind conservation biology, and the efforts of so many dedicated individuals and groups to protect the amazing biodiversity of the natural world we live in.

This internal passion is one of the most important messages I try to instill in my students. They can make a difference in the world around them. We do this by increasing their awareness of some of the ecological threats we are facing today, and examining what we can do to improve the state of the natural world. Something so important, because honestly we are taking it for granted.

Last Wednesday while reading articles from TreeHugger.com, a site that compiles informational content related to the environment, conservation, and technology, I stumbled upon a product that ignited excitement and inspired me. Its pure simplicity paired with innovation that has huge possibilities to make the world a better place for so many.

© LuminAID

The product is called LuminAID. Put as simply as it is elegant: it is an inflatable solar light. A water proof pouch that contains a solar panel, rechargeable battery and LED light. The video below describes the LuminAID.

The LuminAID inspires me, catches my imagination, and gives me hope for the future of our planet. Yet, I can’t  quite put my finger on exactly what aspect of the LuminAID I find so magnificent.

Could it be its simple, yet practical and innovative design. A small, foldable design that can be used in so many ways. This simple, inexpensive product can provide light to disaster victims, to people in developing nations without reliable electricity, or even to me as I sit at home on a Vermont winter night, when the power is out.

Or could it be the the “Give Light, Get Light” business motto they have taken. For each LuminAID light someone buys, they will then give a LuminAID to the community projects they are working on around the world. An approach that motivates giving.

Or is it the implications for the planet.  This simple product could reduce the use of many make-shift lamps and lanters in those same developing or disaster struck areas. Helping to cut down on toxins harmful to both people’s respiratory systems, but also the environment.

The LuminAID isn’t going to change national energy production, and all the detrimental ecological problems aligned with it. However, it is innovation moving in the right direction. Change starts at the personal level. If we are going to change how a nation produces energy, first we have the change how the individual thinks about energy. Making people aware of the successful use of renewable energy, like solar, and increasing its prevalence in our U.S. culture, and other cultures around the world, is the first step in shifting the energy paradigm.

LuminAID has done this for me. It inspired me to share its informational video with all my classes, about 80 students, and some even said ‘cool’ out loud. Perhaps they will share it with their friends or family. It has inspired me to write this post. It has inspired me to “give light, get light.”

I hope you are inspired to get more information or give light yourself. Their goal is sell 10,000 dollars world of LuminAID, but I think we can do better than that. Our planet deserves it.

The Things Students Remember…

One set of my classes just took a test on the different Biomes of the world. We covered 9 of them: Arctic, Tundra, Coniferous Forest, Deciduous Forest, Estuary, Savanna, Desert, Rainforest, and Coral Reefs.

A Deciduous Forest during October in Vermont

During this period of study students researched the defining characteristics (rainfall, average temperature, etc…) of their chosen biome. The next step was to examine the adaptions of organisms that are able to survive and live in those different regions of the planet.

We covered countless examples of different organisms with varying traits, and different evolutionary benefits from across all of these biomes. One of the questions on the test was to provide an example of an organism from the Desert, Savanna, and Tundra and then describe one adaptation that increases the survival rate of each of the organisms.

Of all the organisms we discussed, and had to choose from, I saw an overwhelming trend that students provided the same example organism and the same adaptations as their classmates. I collected the following data:

81% of my students described the cactus from the Desert

74% described the caribou from the Tundra

61% describe the zebra from the Savanna

(Sample size 54 students)

 As I graded these tests I wondered what made students remember these organisms? These adaptations? Why were so many answers so similar?

As I proctor quizzes and tests I wander through the aisles of desks answering questions and checking to see that directions are being followed accurately. I am pretty aware of what’s going on, it hasn’t been that long since I was in their seats. So, I have thrown out the idea of a vast conspiracy against me with an elaborate underground system of note passing and sharing answers via text message. (I hope)

So what are the other options?

My next thought is that many of these students have seen movies like “The Lion King” and are comfortable with recalling information related to zebras or other savanna organisms. I’d also guess when anyone thinks about the desert a cactus is one of the first things that comes to mind. Students have prior knowledge of these organisms, so they connect better with them, and can describe them more successfully.

On the other hand, I myself am fascinated with the cactus, and as a result got excited to talk about them. The fact that their roots can grow rapidly at the stimulus of moisture, and they create a flat network of roots close to the surface, like a flattened umbrella, (a simile I used in class) allowing rapid collection and then storage of up to 3,000 liters of water in their enlarged stems. Amazing.

Though its hard to actually show my excitement and awe at these organisms as I sit here typing, perhaps being a “scientist nerd geek”, as I was called by one of my students last week, is actually paying off. Perhaps my enthusiasm, though they might think its geeky, actually caught the interest of students, provided the right environment to remember, or just the memory of that time ‘dorky Mr. Reid got really excited about a cactus’. And so, voila when it came time to show what they knew they could remember my excited, nerdy ramblings.

I can’t be sure which explanation may have more influence over the outcome: my excitement during instruction, their prior knowledge, or even an option C. Whatever the reason it’s a win-win situation, learning occured.

Building connections to prior knowledge is such an important step in learning. Making the content applicable to the students, and what they already know, and have experienced is the keystone to developing long lasting knowledge and skills. On top of that how can I expect my students to be excited about Biology if I’m not. I can’t. So, I own my passion for science and accept great nick names that go along with it.

Teaching: A Community Approach

95% of having a successful classroom where student learning consistently occurs, where students feel safe, respected and valued is based on community.

Well… I don’t actually have any quantitative data to support that figure. But, qualitatively speaking, based on my experience, I would stand by that statement 100%. Brain research clearly demonstrates that students who do not feel safe, be it physically or emotionally, are in ‘survival mode’ their brains have turned off all unnecessary elements in order to focus on those that will help them cope with the current unsafe situation around them.

For this reason I make it my goal to do my best to make sure that in my classroom all students feel welcome, safe, and protected from outside forces. Honestly, and unfortunately, there are times when this does not occur. A snide remark from a peer, teasing, picking, or making fun of what some says or does. It doesn’t matter how I handle or deal with the comment or situation, the damage is done. The individual being picked on or teased has been demeaned, most likely feels like dirt and just wants to crawl inside his or herself and hide.

This is the worst part of teaching. I know first hand the feelings these comments cause. The extended impacts, the self-doubt and disrespect for one’s self. And, every time one of these situations occur I try to A) facilitate the repair of the student who may have been impact as well as B) try to have the antagonist see the situation from the others perspective. How would the comment make them feel. But again, the damage is done.

So, how can we prevent these situation from occurring the first place? Community.

Building community is an important process in developing a successful learning environment. From starting day 1 discussing classroom norms, to promoting respectful and positive behavior throughout the school year. And, a few weeks ago I had the chance to do just that. A group of 3 students put together this fantastic yet a bit unorthodox plan, a plan that would play a huge role in developing our classes community. Little did we know.

Background:1. On Fridays one of my College Preparation Biology classes has study hall in my classroom. 2. Throughout the week three guys had been scheming. 3. The same plan got shut down on Thursday in a history class.

What was the plan you ask? One student brought in a panini machine, another a loaf of white bread and a stick of butter, and the third a pound of american cheese (orange). Grilled cheese.

When the students walked in with their equipment I was hesitant at first, but then I thought what’s the worst that could happen. They had just completed in a big project the day before. They deserved a day to be teenagers and just make some grill cheese sandwiches. They were shocked and amazed when I approved their idea (though I did make them setup across the room from and lab equipment and storage cupboards).

It was the best 40 minutes of my week, and I would guess some of theirs as well. So, as everyone circled around watching, chatting, and laughing, the scent of warm melting butter engulfed the classroom. As each sandwich finished it was split and handed out and eventually most students, those who dared, were enjoying a nice Biology lab snack. It was a few minutes of the day when no one was worrying about popularity or status, but just purely enjoying life and the unexpected turn of events.

I’m glad the fire alarm didn’t get set off, but even if it had, I wouldn’t have regretted it, and I would have taken full responsibility. The group of 2o students that were in my room that day are better for it, and so am I. One of my own strongest memories from high school is making venison and eggs in a frying pan, on a hot plate, in chemistry class, my junior year (Thanks, Mr. Kelsey). It’s no wonder I let some  cheese sandwiches be grilled, I come by it honestly.

So, my advice to teachers out there is to do those things that help build community. Some days you just need to stop and smell the butter… or whatever the case may be. Most things important to be learned and experienced aren’t going to come from the pages of a text book. Once the community is built the rest will come.

P.S. It was the best grilled cheese I’ve ever had… in a Biology lab.

What’s Wrong with NECAP Testing

For those of you unfamiliar with NECAP testing, it is the New England Common Assessment Program. A standardized test that aims to assess student proficiency in reading, writing, math and science in Vermont, New Hampshire, Rhode Island and Maine. It is scored on a scale of 1-4 based on proficiency at meeting grade level expectations. 4 being proficient with distinction, 3 being proficient, 2 is partially proficient and finally a 1 is substantially below proficient.

Being a science teacher I have only worked with, and experienced the NECAP Science test. So, the following is based on my experiences proctoring and analyzing data collected from the NECAP Science exam.

There are 4 main problems I have with the NECAP test:

1. The Breadth is too Wide

The exam is taken by 8th graders and again as 11th graders. This means that in 11th grade students are taking a science test based on 3 years of content. In my school the average student would have taken Physical and Earth science , Biology, and Chemistry in 9th, 10th and 11th grades, respectfully.

That’s a whole lot of science to expect students to remember, especially given that the questions do not focus on the big, over-arching ideas from those branches of science. Instead, they focus on  specific scientific factoids that you remember or your don’t. Basing student proficiency in science on 60 or so questions from 3 years of content is ludicrous, and unfair to our students.

From my own experience flipping through the exam last year there were several chemistry questions about reactions and chemical bonding that I’m not sure I would have answered correctly, even with extensive post-high school scientific study.

The test covers too much content and the focus is too specific. It’s like trying to understand the whole universe with one telescope.

2. Little Depth of Knowledge

As I previously mentioned the majority of the test focuses on the ability to recall a specific fact about a topic, with a huge library of possible scientific topics to choose from. This means that students who are good at recall and can pull out those facts, filed away long ago, will do great; however, students that are not as successful at remembering just where the equation for photosynthesis got stored in their brain 1.5 years ago will not be quite so successful.

Beyond this, the test does little to assess higher order thinking, like hypothesizing, designing experiments and conducting them, or and making judgements and evaluating the validity of that hypothesis. Processes from levels 5 and 6 of Bloom’s Taxonomy, creating and evaluating. Instead the test focuses on remembering, describing, and solving, levels 1-3.

This is frustrating because science is about using the scientific method, inquiry, to learn and solve problems. In my classroom especially, I put a strong focus into teaching students how to think scientifically. Learning how to develop a hypothesis and then design and conduct an experiment. From there we can then analyze the results of that experiment and make judgements on the validity of our hypothesis by drawing conclusions. All higher order thinking skills, levels 5 and 6 according to Bloom, and none are adequately assessed by NECAP.

I may not have remembered the answer to a NECAP question about chemistry, even as a science teacher, but I’ll tell you, I’ve learned the skills to find out the correct answer. Which skills are more important to have? Which skills are more important to assess in our students?

3. There is No Motivation

NECAP test scores have no impact on students’ ability to obtain course credit, graduate, go to college or get a job. There is no motivation. No reward for putting your best effort in and no punishment for making doodles all over the test instead of answering the questions.

So, how can we expect to get students best efforts and accurate results when we demand that they spend three days, taking 2-4 hours of standardized tests a day, without any way of showing them that we value their time and best effort because the nature of the test has no value in their life.

When you have parents telling students “not to worry about the tests”, “don’t work too hard”, they “don’t matter to you” (all things student have told me) then why would we expect a full effort. Yes, there are those students that are intrinsically motivated to excel at all things they are exposed; however, this in not all of our students. If we want to get a the best effort from students we have to motivate them to do so, just like any other aspect of life.

4. It is Standardized.

The problem I have will all standardized tests is that students don’t have standardized brains. I know that each and every one of my students comes from a different home life, school back ground, support system, even genetic make-up (I am a Biologist after all). So, they are not going to learn in a standardized way. As a result I don’t teach each student the same, I don’t interact with all students in the same way, and I especially don’t assess students’ learning in the same manner.

So, why then, if all students learn differently, would we base the progress of student learning and school performance on one type of assessment. We should not.

We need an alternative.

Don’t get me wrong, I believe that schools and teachers should be held accountable for student learning; however, NECAP is not the right tool. For the reasons outlined above I believe NECAP does not present an adequate portrayal of student learning and does not present adequate evidence of the hard work, time, and dedication I know that I put into teaching my students every day, and assume my colleagues do as well.

Though, as a Vermonter and Red Sox fan, a piece of me dies saying this: perharps we should take a page out of New York’s book and look at their Regents Exams. From what I understand, they are standardized yearly exams that specifically test the  content of the course the student was enrolled in that year. For instance taking a Biology Regents Exam are you take Biology (brilliant!). The results of which are directly connected to achieving a regents diploma at graduation. Both narrowing the breadth of the exam and attaching student ownership to the results.

This still is not perfect though. It would still be a standardized test, and would most likely rely on assessing lower order thinking, testing primarily recall ability. Though it would take out a few strong variables. But do we really need all students to pass the same test? Does that test what they have actually learned and taken away from a class?

Perhaps the science fairs that so many schools put on should be connected to assessing student learning in science. Having a nationally or regionally standardize form for assessing students ability to develop, test, and evaluate hypotheses. This would allow for the assessment of recall and basic facts in the background information, while also assessing higher order thinking. This form of assessment would also be broad and open-ended enough that students with a variety of cognitive, motor and communication abilities could perform the task in a differentiated manner. I think I’m on to something! More on this later.

Whatever the tool is, we need to find a new one. A way to assess students and to judge the success of our schools other than a standardized test that sets all but a small window of students up for failure from the start. I don’t have the solution, but I’m working on it.