The State’s Solution

Finals week has a rhythm, an expected routine; as does the few weeks leading up to it. This semester our routine was disrupted by a new testing requirement dictated by the state’s department of education that follows right along with current trends on high stakes testing.

Some background is probably appropriate. Here, juniors take a test (sophomores take part of it, but not all of it) and they have to pass it to graduate, at least starting with this year’s seniors who took this test last year as juniors. If a student does not pass, there are ‘alternative demonstrations of competency.’ This amounts to acceptable scores on other tests: a 3 on an AP test, a 24 on the Science portion of the ACT, or passing a Biology or Chemistry end of course exam (the disruption to be covered here).

The state asked for teacher volunteers (on 6 Aug) to work on test materials starting on 9 Aug.; those were the specifics given and two volunteers went up from my school. It turns out the ‘testing materials’ to be worked on were End of Course exams for English 3, Algebra 2, US History, Biology and Chemistry. These tests were written in a day with a quick look the next day and the teachers were sent home. There were no expectations by the state to review the tests written at a later date, much less to double-check questions and answers or discuss when these tests would be seen by students.

Then, in November, we are told those tests written in August, we are giving them to the students in December (because our school is on a 4×4 block). No one has seen any of these tests, except those few teachers that wrote them, who apparently had to sign confidentiality agreements. So, if you wrote the test, you know what’s on the test, but you cannot discuss with anyone what you put on the test.  Next, the state sends out a copy of the ‘Standards and Benchmarks’ associated with each test.  In science, our standards are 9-12, broken down into three basic areas – the nature of science (science process, data collection, data analysis, etc.), content (biology, earth science/astronomy, physics/chemistry), and science and society (impact of science, technology, specific NM items like the WIPP site, etc.).

The expectation by both the state and the district is that this should be the state law mandated Final for these courses.  Moreover, there’s a window to administer them which also has to include make-up’s as all students in these courses have to have the opportunity to take the tests.  As these tests are untimed, students can take as long as they need, but that requires scheduling a large enough block of time to take the test, most of which recommended 140 minutes.  Our classes are 78 minutes which meant during the last two weeks of the semester, these tests are administered in the morning (lunch can be moved easier than changing bus schedules) and some students are missing multiple classes potentially multiple days during this time.  Lastly, there’s testing security: you are not to discuss the test with colleagues or students, much less look at the test.  Yet, we as the teachers of these courses are supposed to grade the tests administered.  We are to grade them according to the rubric even if the rubric is wrong as this would permit the district to petition the state to throw that question out yet it’s still counted as wrong for the student.  In February 2013 the PED is supposed to request teachers to go up and review the tests sometime in March.  Whether this means grading all the tests again, reviewing the test to identify problem questions, determining ‘proficiency,’ etc. is unknown.  By April 2013, students will be notified as to their proficiency rating in that class, i.e., passed or not, leaving May to possibly retake the test (no one knows for sure about this) for the course that ended in December 2012.

Aside from the absurdity of writing an End of Course exam in a day, I am expected to count it as a Final.  A test I have no knowledge about.  Oh, I forgot, I do have the standards and benchmarks for NM.  The Biology standards are fairly comprehensive and have some detail, which is why I think this was one of the courses chosen to administer an end of course exam.  The Chemistry standards, though, are a whole different matter.  These standards make no mention of the mole or stoichiometry, granted they do mention spectroscopy in a round about way and bonding generally and equilibrium.  However, the greatest critique of the standards is from Fordham:

The state of the high school physical science standards is far worse. New Mexico fails to outline high school courses for either physics or chemistry, and important topics normally found in these courses are glossed over or missing entirely in the high school physical science standards. Indeed, all of high school physical science is shoehorned into about three-and-a-half pages. To be fair, what is present therein is generally well organized and well written, but at a level that cannot serve well as the basis for college-prep courses.

The Chemistry test, according to student comments, was the hardest of all and covered a gamut of content (some I certainly did not get to) in 24 multiple choice and 8 short response questions.  In terms of grading, time consuming is an understatement, especially as the rubrics provided for the short answer questions were vague and at times wrong (the answer did not include the same substances as in the question).

On the whole, I don’t really have a problem with this idea of an end of course test.  Simply, if you learned the basics, you’re just showing you internalized it.  Therein is the difference, too.  I want to see the extent of their learning, but I don’t know if I’m looking for mastery of each and every concept; mastery, learning anything well, takes time.  Certain concepts will take more time than a one semester course, hence, the idea of college-prep.  Ultimately, the student should leave with some knowledge (content) and an ability to apply that knowledge to situations in life, even if it’s just recognizing ‘bad’ science on TV or understanding a news paper article.  So, the problem isn’t really expecting students to know something or expecting me to have taught them something, it’s more this iteration: a poorly produced, ill-conceived, silver-bullet founded upon a fallacy that it will ensure student proficiency.

My hope is that this will be changed by the spring semester meetings, that rather than ‘count’ this test it’s seen as a field test.  My hope is that the state will take it’s time to review and modify and re-write and do another field test next year; that maybe in three more years we’ll have well-written, normed, peer-reviewed tests capable of informing instruction.  “Informing instruction” should be the point.  Of course, given what I’ve written, this could be more of a pipe-dream.

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