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SHS science department retools methods to help students pass state-mandated tests

It took Sunnyside High School’s science department only nine months to double the number of students passing the biology end of course exam, now required for graduation.

The class of 2015, currently juniors, is the first class that will need to pass the science exam in order to graduate. When the class took the biology test in May of this year, 46.1 percent passed. Only 23.7 percent of the class of 2014 passed the test.

The science department credits a new way of looking at assessments in increasing the number of students passing the test.

“Last year we redid our assessment to use the same format as the end of course exam,” said science teacher Joyce Stark. “We used their templates and matched the format so it is familiar to our students when they go in for the big test.”

The teachers in the department calculated that between 40 and 70 percent of their students would pass the test this past May. While the 46.1 percent is on the low end, Stark pointed out that 102 students, 22 percent, were extremely close to passing the exam.

“The magic number to pass the exam is 400 points,” said science teacher Teri Alvarez-Ziegler. “We had a lot of students who scored between 390 and 399.”

Those students have the option of appealing their scores, but the process must be done by their parents.

“I sent forms to fill out and take home,” said Stark. “The parents can go over the test and file an appeal if the score is very close.”

Alvarez-Ziegler said points can be taken away for simply writing answers outside the space put aside for it.

“They may have understood the material, but wrote outside the box,” said Alvarez-Ziegler. “But unless their parents appeal, they have to retake the test.”

The teachers in the science department have also made an effort to make sure students who retake the exam are able to pass it.

“We have two groups, those who nearly passed the exam, and those who did a bit worse,” said Alvarez-Ziegler. “We have slightly different options for each group.”

Rather than simply make students take the standard biology class again, the science department has developed a course called “ecology, evolution and cell processes” that includes review of basic concepts with an emphasis on the areas where students had trouble during May’s exam.

“We are focusing on the weaknesses,” said Stark. “We can concentrate on areas where students need the most help.”

The course is offered in two forms. For students who almost passed the exam the first time, the course is a single trimester, ending in November.

“We’ve crammed a whole year’s worth of science into one trimester,” said Alvarez-Ziegler.

The students in that class can then retake the biology end of course exam in January and, with the extra help, will hopefully pass it and fulfill the graduation requirement.

For students who scored a little lower on the test, the course is a full year. The students in that course will also take the test in January.

“The carrot is that if they pass the exam in January, they can have the last trimester for an elective,” said Alvarez-Ziegler. “If they don’t pass in January, they finish the course and take the exam again with the class of 2016.”

The new course counts as credits toward graduation and it also has helped the science department teachers to refine the main biology course.

“We are learning about problems our students have and incorporating those lessons into the sophomore biology class as well,” said Stark.

An example of a lesson learned was in regards to population density. The students understood the concept of density and they understood the formula for figuring out populations, but they did not connect the vocabulary word “density” with what they had learned about population.

“If they were asked about population density on the exam, they wouldn’t understand the question even though they know the material,” said Stark. “It was not something that would be an obvious problem to us, but it’s one our students ran into.”

Another way the teachers are helping to make sure students pass the exam is by staying after school to review problems after the first trimester ends.

“The first trimester is over in November, but the test isn’t until January,” said Alvarez-Ziegler. “We’re holding ‘bio jams’ after school to give students continual review until the exam.”

Both teachers are confident that the department’s efforts will lead to more success for SHS students. Although the science department didn’t have the benefit of a science coach to assist in developing the program, they think they’ve put together a good set of tools to help students reach graduation.

“We have a plan,” said Alvarez-Ziegler.

“And it’s working,” said Stark.

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