Biology Below The Gnat Line

Biy'allogy - (n) the scientific discipline otherwise known as biology, as taught below the Gnat Line. This blog is for educators who teach science in the deep south, where social and political conservatism reign supreme and "evolution" is a cuss word.

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

State Standards and Student Apathy

My Fall 2010 Biology students were possibly the poorest students I've ever encountered. They didn't do anything. They didn't participate in class or study or even complain about their grades. It was the epitome of apathy. I did everything I could think of to help them: practice quizzes, chapter prep questions, classroom activities for kinesthetic learners, movies... and that's not counting the hours and hours I sit in my office waiting for them to come by for help. I posted video lectures and privately tutored them and did my very very best to facilitate the information. They didn't get it. I was baffled. I even asked them for suggestions, but of course they had none.

I started to wonder if there was something wrong with them. Our unique institutional status means that our students tend to skew toward the lower end on the spectrum of academic abilities, and that's fine. We're specialists, and we've adjusted our teaching styles accordingly. But the more I talked to students about their experiences, the more I started to wonder if the system was setting them up for failure. Many were taught science by coaches or part-time teachers, and while I have no way to evaluate the qualifications of any of these individuals, I do know that the students I get in my biology class haven't retained even the simplest biological concepts. Why not? I hypothesized that expectations are low and that there are no consequences for poor performance. 

According to the Georgia of Department of Education, there are state standards for grades 9-12, assessed by an end-of-course test (EOCT), and I was able to download a copy of the exam given in 2004. The test seems reasonable. Assuming the standards haven't' changed drastically, any student who took biology in high school should have seen the material presented in BIOL 1107 before enrolling in my class. Furthermore, 66% of Georgia students who took the exam met or exceeded these standards. This means that they are being held to a reasonable set of expectations. Apparently I have the 34% of students who did NOT meet the standard. Fantastic.

From the Georgia Department of Education website, "Improved teaching and learning are the main focus of Georgia’s education system. The EOCT align with the Georgia curriculum standards and include assessment of specific content knowledge and skills. The assessments provide diagnostic information to help students identify strengths and areas of need in learning, therefore improving performance in all high school courses and on other assessments, such as the GHSGT. The EOCT also provide data to evaluate the effectiveness of classroom instruction at the school and system levels." I've included the Spring 2010 assessment results below.

Sixty-six (66%) percent of Georgia’s students met or exceeded the standard for Biology. When comparing the Spring 2010 scores to the Spring 2009 scores, the percent of students meeting or exceeding the standard increased by two (2) percentage points in Biology. The percent of students achieving the exceeds standard performance level in Biology increased by one (1) percentage point between Spring 2009 and Spring 2010. Since the inception of the Biology EOCT as a GPS-based test, the percentage of students meeting or exceeding the standard has increased by seven (7) percentage points from Spring 2006 to Spring 2010. The 2009 – 2010 Strategic Plan target for the percentage of students meeting or exceeding the standard on the Biology EOCT was 66%. This target was met.

So, perhaps there are no consequences for poor performance, and this could explain my surprisingly low success rates in Freshman Bio? I know many students are pushed forward regardless of academic prowess, and that school districts are under immense fiscal pressure to prevent students from being held back, sometimes at the expense of the student's learning. But according to the Dept. of Ed., there are consequences for failing the EOCT. "The EOCT is administered upon completion of one of the above courses. Beginning with the 2004-2005 school year, a student’s EOCT score is averaged in as 15% of the final course grade. The student must have a final course grade of 70 or above to pass the course and earn credit toward graduation. When the student repeats a course to earn credit for graduation, he/she would participate in the EOCT at the end of the repeated course. EOCT scores will not be “banked”. The EOCT is also one criterion for a student to receive a variance for the Georgia High School Graduation Test (GHSGT)."

Hypothesis rejected.

So what now?

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