Monthly Archives: July 2014

Dangerous Work

I went to the movies with my daughter yesterday to see a movie called Earth to Echo which I knew nothing about, but found delightful. Sitting through the previews, I watched one for a new movie called The Giver and it looked interesting. A little too much like The Hunger Games, Ender’s Game, etc., but interesting. When I started thinking about it, I remembered a book of the same title from when I taught 6th and 8th grade way back in 1997. Obviously, I’m not very up on my children’s literature because it is one of the most popular, well sold, controversial, banned books out there.

So, I downloaded it and read it in about 2 hours. It was fantastic. I can see immediately how young people are drawn to it. I have no idea if the movie will be any good but the book left me, like it does a lot of pre-teens, wondering about the ending and surprised along the way. I highly recommend it.

But, after reading it I looked in the back and found Lois Lowry’s Newbery Award acceptance speech. It is also very good and provides a backdrop to how she began the idea of the book. In the end she had these words:

And all of you, as well. Let me say something to those of you here who do such dangerous work. The man that I named The Giver passed along to the boy knowledge, history, memories, color, pain, laughter, love, and truth. Every time you place a book in the hands of a child, you do the same thing. It is very risky. But each time a child opens a book, he pushes open the gate that separates him from Elsewhere. It gives him choices. It gives him freedom. Those are magnificent, wonderfully unsafe things.

I thought about teaching and how teachers embody this idea of hers. I thought about evolution and 9th grade, and how kids begin to question and figure things out, and how dangerous that is for them.

I remembered in 1987 being a very religious Catholic, although not a creationist-more interested in the ethics and morals. Then, majoring in geology at the University of Georgia, taking Philosophy of Science and paleontology classes (my first ever intense dose of Darwin and natural selection) and having my world turned upside down. Putting those books and readings into my hands was a dangerous thing for me. I was exposed and uncomfortable, I had to suddenly make choices and formulate who I was.

The problem was that now the foundation of biology and life through time, made total sense in the light of evolution.

I went to geology mapping field school in Canon City, Colorado and our home base was this wonderful Holy Cross Abbey. Beautiful area of the world and the abbey was a quiet, place to come back to after 6-8 hours hiking around mountains piecing together underground geologic formations by looking at exposed outcrops. It was hot, dry and hard to comprehend. There was a monk there at the abbey (Benedictine) who would take walks in the evenings. I began taking walks with him. We talked about the field school work and eventually I confided in him about my doubts about religion and what I had learned in science. I told him that most of what I had grown up to believe did not make sense any more in light of natural selection, but that the morality and ethics still did. I was pretty bothered by this and felt guilty. He was a great listener. Eventually he told me that having doubts was ok and that following my own path was (in his mind) what was supposed to happen. So, I did.

I only bring this up because although I was older than most kids that read The Giver, having your predisposed world  rocked is something I know a little about. Having to evaluate and formulate your own authentic ideas from books and teachings is dangerous and sometimes painful. As a teacher, sometimes I forget that. Kids are not used to thinking for themselves at that age. They have to be nurtured into that.

So, The Giver had an impact on me as an adult and caused me to reflect. I think as teachers we sometimes downplay the impact we have by what we teach and how we ask kids to think. I know I will be more mindful to this and create more opportunities for kids to wade through the “dangerous work” that is done.

Stochastic Nature of AP Scores

This is the time of year when teachers and students access the AP exam results from the previous school year and see the result in a score measured on a 1-5 scale. For some teachers it is a quick glance for verification or reflection, for others it is a meticulous study, and yet for others it is a nerve wracking experience that may decide their teaching fate for the upcoming year.

Each teacher’s school or school system uses AP scores in different ways. One end of the spectrum they are used as a celebration of how the “school” did and on the other end of the spectrum, teacher’s and possibly an entire school’s merits and effectiveness are negatively judged by the 1-5 score. Of course, none of this is what the AP exam and score was designed for. Simply, the score is one example of how a student did on a specific test on one day, at the end of less than one year of instruction. Anyone else who tells you otherwise is selling something.

I teach AP biology so what I have been wrongly led to believe by other educators is that:

  • Poor exam scores “hurt” children.
  • Poor exam scores or great exam scores are a way to judge both teacher effectiveness and student intelligence.
  • Schools can be measured by their AP scores from year to year.
  • Teachers can be measured by their AP scores from year to year.
  • I can compare a teacher in New York teaching AP biology to one in Georgia teaching AP biology.
  • That the exam is meaningful in some way other that a measurement tool.
  • That the exam tells how much biology the students learned in that year.
  •  That AP exam scores from one year can be connected to other years in a line graph.
  • That if a student does not make a 5 on the exam, then nothing has been gained.
  • That AP exam scores are currency.

All of the above (to me) is ideally wrong. If you work in a school system that judges you as a teacher based on your AP scores, I would suggest convincing them that this is poor practice, or I would change schools. If you judge the learning of your students based on their AP score, then I suggest you stop teaching AP or learn to appreciate all of the other ways they demonstrate learning.

If your school appears on a ranking list, and it is used to boost your recruitment or prop you up compared to other schools, then that is disingenuous.

If you focus on 5’s, then stop doing that.

Look, this is a blog and is totally my opinion but AP exam results from year to year are almost stochastic. Maybe not totally random, but variable enough for me to understand how little the exam measures, how I cannot connect years together, and how much is NOT in my control.

Here is a table and graph showing my AP biology results over an 11 year period.

Screen Shot 2014-07-07 at 11.35.55 AM apbio   Graphically you can see that I have had years with high scores and year with low scores. This is what most teachers see over time.

  • In 2007, would you have fired me or replaced me because my passing % was in the 70’s?
  • Am I considered a “success” or a “good teacher” since my overall 11 year pass % is almost 86%?
  • How do I account for years I don’t teach well, but kids do well on the exam?
  • How does one account for 18 5’s in 2012 and 17 3’s in 2013? Was I a kick ass teacher in 2012 and and average one in 2013?
  • I have never had 100% of my students pass the exam. Am I a failure?
  • Did I know everything I needed to know in 2004 or have I grown, learned and taught differently since then?
  • If I took all 258 students and gave them all 11 exams, what would my stats look like?
  • Because different students take different tests on different years, why does everyone insist on connecting those dots in the graph above?
  • About 29% of the kids I have ever taught in AP biology have gotten 5’s. Have I hurt or failed the other 71%?
  • Some years the exam has been hard, some years it has been easy. Some years I did not teach something on the exam (plasmid mapping). In 2012 they re-did the course. If my students don’t perform like I expect, am I to blame the unfair test for hurting the kids and in other years for helping them too much?
  • Since they can’t ride the curve any more and have to meet specific targets, is that unfair?

Bottom line: hardly anything is in your control. You teach the best you can for the time given, go out of your way as much as you can manage to add additional learning experiences and still:

  • Your students take the test, not you.
  • They get one shot at the test, no matter their circumstances at home, how much they studied, etc.
  • You did not design the test. The test by its nature puts everyone at a disadvantage.
  • The test does not evaluate all learning.
  • You still only have a finite amount of time to teach and kids to learn, no matter the snow days, sick days, pep rallys, school schedule differences, and budget woes you have.
  • You should go into the exam without expectation.
  • You should teach AP biology because you want your students to learn advanced biology.

The effect you have on your student’s and your own psyche IS in your control. The more you emphasize scores, grades, college entrance, GPA, class rank,  and college class exemption instead of learning biology, the less a service you do yourself and your students.

Lastly, the biggest cop out is the “cash for scores” cop out. AP classes are viewed as currency.

I did not make the rule that colleges and universities only accept 5’s. According to the College Board, a 3 on the exam is passing. I get told by a few students, parents, and educators each year that focusing on learning biology is great and all, but “wink, wink” we all know that it is all about getting the right number to boost GPA to get into college and possibly an exemption. I mean, kids will save money by exempting so more 5’s should be given and by not focusing on the exam and grades a disservice is being done to kids.

Also the idea that kids have to pay for the exam, so the expectation is that they get something for the money spent, is not a reason to take the class. They do get something, they learn biology. Probably at a lower cost than college credit hours. If they want to take another AP class because they are afraid of losing GPA ground, not getting a 5, or losing class rank, then I encourage them not to take the course. I want kids who are interested in science and biology. The love of the subject comes first. That is surely how I teach the course.

All I can say is that if you re-read the last two paragraphs, and don’t feel a little sick inside about how AP gets manipulated and misunderstood, then there is something wrong.