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New Teachers Online: How-To Articles:
Teach High School Science

Ending the Course – then and now
By Judy Jones

The end of this school year has caused me to reflect on how high stakes testing has changed the last month for my biology 1 classes.   I flash back to the 80’s and early 90’s when in the beginning of May, my Biology I freshman students were given a technology project.  They had to create an information brochure about one of the animals that lived at the North Carolina Zoo in Asheboro.   They needed to research the classification, geography, habitat and niche, adaptations, eating behaviors, conservation status, and evolution of their animals.  After researching, they designed colorful brochures with pictures and graphics.  At the end of May, we took a trip to the NC zoo.  Students were organized into groups of 10-12.  In each group, students served as experts on their particular animals.  Each group would see as much of the zoo as possible but would make sure to stop at the enclosures of the animals researched by the group members.   The students became teachers as they explained what they had learned about each of their organisms.   In addition, all students had a study guide that focused on animal behavior and included a timed behavior study of a primate group.  Students also noted endangered species and survival adaptations.   One of the features of this project included looking at what type of habitat would be best for their particular animal.   They were asked to ponder whether the zoo was providing an adequate environment and to propose their plan for an ideal habitat.    The next day when we returned from the zoo, I presented information about the history of zoos and gave them an article to read from The Animal Contract by Desmond Morris.   My students then discussed what they had learned about the habitats of their animals and they debated the larger question of whether humans should even create zoos.

My students loved this project.  When they returned from college years later, they would remind me of the animals they had researched.  “Remember, Ms. Jones, I did the desert hairy scorpion!”   I usually had forgotten their particular animals, but I could certainly relate to the continuing pleasure they expressed so many years later.  They not only remembered their animal and the nature of the project, they also remembered the joy of research and of creating a product and teaching their peers.   They remembered debating a question that did not have an easy answer.   They left biology those years with excitement, a sense of competence, and even a passion to pursue a degree in biology in many cases.   It was an exciting culmination to a year of studying the wonders of living things.

So, how does May look today in my biology classes?   In early May, we are trying to conclude our curriculum – racing through the animal phyla because we will be spending 2 weeks of 50 minute classes reviewing for the state EOC (End of Course) test.   I make every effort to review in a lively, meaningful and connected way, but it is still an unexciting way to end a biology course.   A full week is designated for the actual testing – for all subjects – and then another week is designated for remediation and retesting of those who were not “proficient.”   All of this effort is to make sure that students “pass” these multiple choice tests with a “C” or better.  If they don’t pass the first time, they must retest.  If they don’t pass the second time and are otherwise passing the course, we can present a portfolio of their work and they pass that way.   Don’t you just get excited about science reading all of this?       

I don’t object to review and accountability.  I think those are vital in education.  But I do question a situation where one test is used to determine whether a student passes a whole course or not.  I object to the purely multiple-choice nature of test.  Is the study of biology or science really an objective test?  What happens to argument/evidence, skepticism, theorizing, wondering, and using knowledge to debate ethical questions?  I have taught my students to look for complexities and exceptions.  This very skill works against them on this simplistic test.   And yet, in good conscience, I cannot teach any other way. 

I hear teachers talk frequently about how “they don’t have time for creative projects.”   This saddens me deeply.   My solution to this dilemma is to teach for 8-9 months the absolute best, most creative, and most active biology class that I can.   And then the students and I “dig in” to focus on the testing.   At least most of the year, they have a quality course.   And since we can no longer have a field trip in May, we have moved our trip to October.   We (my colleagues and I) have worked hard to integrate our ecology unit into the experience that the students have at the zoo.   Our students are stimulated by the excitement of the trip but they are also learning about many of the required concepts in the biology curriculum.   And we know that they learn them better this way.

My hope for other teachers is that you can find ways to remain creative, to encourage student projects and to engage students in authentic scientific investigation while still preparing them for the ultimate assessment.   I would love to hear about how other teachers deal with this dilemma.

As always if you have questions or contributions, please feel free to contact me.


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