The curse of the standardized test

I’m not enjoying teaching as much as I once did.

Don’t get me wrong, I still love working with young people. I still think my job is valuable and important.

Unfortunately, the testing mandate has arrived in my classroom. My students must pass a Biology End-of-Course (EOC) Exam to graduate from high school in Washington state.

Before it came, I naively thought it wouldn’t affect me. Get them engaged, allow them space to explore and learn, have fun with biology, and the test will take care of itself. Unfortunately, the stakes for my students and my school are too high. Soon, my job may depend on these test results.

I have become a standards-driven, assessment focused teacher and it sucks. Sure I still avoid textbooks and worksheets like the plague. Yes, I still strive to bring hands-on, engaging, real-world learning to my students.

Still, I would be lying if I claimed this test hasn’t changed me. It has. And not for the better…

The time has come to reexamine my values and the way I’m facilitating learning in my classroom and figure out how to bring them back into alignment.

Make time for… Getting Socratic


“I cannot teach anyone anything; I can only make them think.” ~ Socrates

Watch out! I’m ’bout to get all Socratic up in this classroom!

One of my goals for this school year is to improve and expand my use of questions.

I mean this in the broadest possible context. I want to ask more and better questions.


  • …that get students thinking, discussing, even arguing
  • …to help them move forward
  • …to deepen their thinking
  • …to assess understanding
  • …rather than lecturing, when dealing with students’ behavior choices
  • …with colleagues to help move discussions forward or improve the functioning of our PLC
  • …with myself, to improve my reflection on my teaching practice

So, now that I’ve stated this goal, I need to attack it!

I’m going to come up with some key questions that I can use and practice. I’ll keep a cheat sheet handy in class.

More importantly, though, is a mindset of questioning. I have been and will continue to push myself to go to the question first when reaching for an arrow in my proverbial teaching quiver.

Make time for instructional agility

Last week I gave a quiz about natural selection and the results were not good.

The mean grade for the quiz was a D/ D+.

At that point, I had a couple of options, right? I could have moved on and said, “oh well. No time to reteach that concept. State test is coming whether we like it or not and there’s still a lot to cover.” OR I could have said, “Whoa! The kids didn’t get natural selection AT ALL. This is a crucial concept that I need to reteach!”

I chose the latter. We reviewed the misconceptions that arose on the first quiz. I then came up with a task that would require them to apply the criteria of natural selection to examples from nature. Each group then presented to their classmates and answered peer questions.

Tomorrow I will re-assess their understanding of natural selection and I know the results will be much better. They have had time to discuss, to process, and to ask questions. They have had to wrestle with the concepts in a different way than before.

My point is this: we often feel such pressure to “cover” material that we get poor assessment results and feel forced to move on in spite of the data. Either that or we blame the kids for performing poorly and we move on in order to punish them for not understanding the concepts the first time.

In the face of pressures and frustrations, it is critical that we make time in our schedules for instructional agility. We must be able to respond to the needs of the learners in our classrooms and adjust our instruction – even if it means taking a week longer to teach a concept than we had originally planned.

Group Quiz Results!


So, here’s what went down…

My students took this quiz individually, for a grade:

Then they took it as a small group, not for a grade:

These pictures are fairly indicative of the engagement level as the students discussed the quiz and haggled over the correct answers. The observed level of engagement alone tells me that this is a learning experience worth repeating.


  • Class mean for individual quiz = 2.7 (on 4 point #SBAR rubric scale; approximately letter grade = B)
  • Class mean for group quiz (same quiz, same kids, same class period immediately after taking individual quiz) = 3.33 (approximately = A-)


Much of the increased mean score is due to the fact that no group scored below a 2.5, while 5 individual students did. However, there were no individuals that scored a 4 individually, while 2 groups did so. Only 2 of 6 groups improved above the highest score in their group. One actually declined, although that was because the high scorer left during the group portion of the quiz.


Based on the high engagement level that I observed during the group quiz and the level of discourse I heard in nearly all groups, this was a worthwhile learning experience. I think I will make the group quiz a regular practice in my classes going forward.

Next steps:

I need to add an individual reflection step at the end of the group quiz. This should be brief but impactful. Something like this:

  1. What mistakes or misconceptions did you have on your individual quiz that were changed by the group quiz?
  2. What questions do you still need help with after the group quiz?
  3. How did the group quiz help you learn more about this standard?
  4. What are your next steps? (study, re-assess, get help, etc.)

I think this would really help to link the group quiz to the re-learning & re-assessment cycle.

Another next step would be to assign specific roles for the students to play during the group quiz (leader, recorder, questioner, etc.) and give them some discussion prompts, especially in my non-honors classes.

Unanswered Questions:

How did the group quiz impact re-assessment scores? Did the group quiz help students improve their understanding of the content? Is this better than me just going over the correct answers?

Group quiz question follow-up

Here is where edu-blogging +Twitter really shines, folks. To bring you all up to speed, here is a brief summary of events:

1. I read a post by Joss Ives about 2-stage quizzes (stage 1= solo, stage 2=group)

2. I said, “cool idea, how can I make that work with standards-based grading?” and made a blog post about my quandary

4. I sent it to a few Twitter users whom I know are #SBG veterans

5. I received a great comment from Matt Townsley that helped me to see the problem more clearly

So, to tackle Matt’s questions one by one, here goes:

Matt: What instructional or classroom management concern are you trying to address by introducing this idea into your class?

I see the idea of immediately following an individual quiz with a group quiz as a chance for students to, (1) get immediate feedback from their peers about the quiz and where their knowledge level is, and (2) improve their understanding of the content/concept at a time when they should be most receptive to correcting misconceptions and filling knowledge gaps.

The main problem I think the group quiz may address is the problem of students generally sucking at diagnosing their knowledge gaps and taking intentional steps to repair those gaps. I’m hoping the group quiz will help those who bombed the quiz be more successful upon re-assessment.

Matt: Another idea – could you add a third stage? After students receive feedback (no letter grade…or a fictitious grade based on the75% + 25% formula) from the second stage, could you add a third stage where students completed it only individually?

The decision: What I ended up doing falls somewhere in between. We did a small-group whiteboard session yesterday where I circulated to ask questions and provide feedback. This served as a formative assessment for me and as a culminating learning experience for them. Today, they took the quiz individually for a grade. After all of the individual quizzes were complete, I had them complete the same quiz in small groups NOT for a grade.

In my next post, I’ll share the results and my reflection on the process!

Working group assessments in with #SBG

Yesterday, I read a few posts from physics professor Joss Ives at his blog, Science Learnification. One of the posts that really got me thinking was about weekly two-stage quizzes in his physics classes.

A two-stage group exam is form of assessment where students learn as part of the assessment. The idea is that the students write an exam individually, hand in their individual exams, and then re-write the same or similar exam in groups, where learning, volume and even fun are all had.

I really like the idea of having students take a quiz individually, then take it again immediately afterward in a group. I’m going to give this a try next time a give a quiz. If nothing else, instant feedback mixed with collaborative problem solving is a powerful combination.

What I’m trying to wrap my brain around right now is how to work this in with standards-based grading.

Since I don’t give points, I can’t do the 75% individual score + 25% group score = quiz grade split that Joss uses. If I could sit with all groups at once, I could observe and listen for individual involvement in the discussion & problem solving.

It may be that we could just do the group quiz portion as a learning experience and leave it at that. Since my students are always allowed to re-assess, there is value in learning after the assessment.

What I think would be lacking for me is the level of engagement that Joss reports in the group problem solving portion of the quiz. His kids are engaged in no small part because everyone’s grade is on the line. I’m not sure where the immediate motivation would be for many of my students.

Any ideas?

I was spoiled

There is no other way to slice it.

For the last seven years, I taught in a school that gave me near-complete freedom to teach what and how I wanted to. With the National Science Education Standards and the Washington State Standards as rough guideposts, I focused on big ideas and my students investigated them deeply through prolonged project-based learning experiences. To ice the cake, I sported a 1:1 student:computer ratio in my classroom.

Inquiry was deeply ingrained in what we did but often on more of an academic, rather than scientific, level. Student curiousity and questions would absolutely drive the learning, much of which was accomplished via online resources. My students did some really amazing interdisciplinary technology-rich projects.

As proud as I was of these projects, I sometimes felt too little of the learning was rooted in scientific inquiry. This was especially true in biology. It is just plain hard to teach certain aspects of biology through scientific inquiry.

Physics and chemistry were always much easier to attack via rich scientific inquiry. I think this is mostly because the physical sciences are rooted in universal phenomena that we can often reproduce fairly easily (an inexpensively) in any classroom.

So, what’s so special about scientific inquiry?

When students actively engage in gathering data about the world around them and use this data to answer THEIR questions, they come to much deeper understanding of scientific principles than through “discovering” them on the Internet.

This brings us to my present context. Because I’m no longer spoiled with the freedom and technology riches that made my life easy before, I’m having to reinvent myself. So far, I’ve been surviving – sometimes using methods and materials that I would have shunned in the past few years. I’m increasingly finding my groove, though.

One thing is certain – it’s making me a better teacher.

Scientific inquiry is the light at the end of the tunnel. I’m identifying one or two key “labs” per content standard to serve as an anchor experience. From there, students will explore outward as their curiosity leads them. The key is helping them to come back together to share learning from their experimentation and to clearly connect their findings back to the standard. One way I’m doing this is with lots of whiteboarding and socratic discussion. Another way is with a strong emphasis on evidence and reasoning.

As I’ve started doing this, I’ve identified my students’ need for discourse skills. I’m thinking I need to develop protocols for small group and whole class discourse to scaffold them toward effective scientific discourse. Once I put these protocols together, I will share them here for feedback.