Reflecting on Assessment and all else 2020.

This year. #likewhoa.

My goal this year was to focus on the development of performance assessments. Our school is still inching our way towards CBE (and I am thankful for our slow and steady transition because this is not a one-size-fits-all move we can make) and using QPAs as a means to assess the competencies is one of the main pillars of CBE. We set out to really develop something that could be used and modified across all levels of biology from general to advanced, so we focused on transport across a membrane, but we also wanted to apply the knowledge to how organisms use transport mechanisms to maintain homeostasis.

We decided we could build a QPA around a lab experience – to take a simulation and apply it to a real world problem. From these discussions, we ultimately formed our QPA around kidney dialysis (check out the whole lab here). We created a simulated blood and had students become bioengineers testing their new dialysis tube. They had to determine if it would work to filter the blood of someone whose kidneys no longer functioned properly. They added the ‘blood’ (PS – I had fun creating this. Still working on the right color, but I got close!) to the dialysis tubing and allowed it to soak in distilled water. After the allotted time, they tested the water for the presence of the molecules in the blood using indictor solutions – to understand how to use the indicator solutions they watched a demo video prior to conducting the lab (see below).

From there, we had the students make a claim about whether or not their tube would effective in a dialysis machine and use evidence and reasoning to support their claim. To do this well, students had to research how the kidney worked and what should be removed from the blood for waste and what should be kept. We gave this a lot of time from beginning to end. There was ample design time to plan how they would determine what the tube was or wasn’t permeable to, and time to analyze their data once it was collected.

Students completed the lab portion really well. I was extremely proud of the way they conducted themselves and how some of them worked through their challenges. The best part was listening to the students talking to each other while they performed the lab – they had a blast!

Then came the analysis.

Problem #1

This is what we as teachers saw as the heart of the assessment. This is where they apply what they learned in the lab to the problem they wanted to solve. This is hard for students because for something like this – they can’t google the answer. They have to build their own answer from their own work and research. However, this was really the first time our students were asked to use the CER method and we learned a QPA was not the place for introducing this. A big change we are making next year is to use CER from the start of the year and work on the components of each throughout the course. I use this a ton in my AP Biology course, but really need to integrate it more into my CP and Advanced level courses.

Problem #2

Our students have not had enough inquiry-based lab experiences to truly be left to figure this one out on their own. Not because they can’t do it – on the contrary, they are super capable, but they are too ‘trained’ to cookie cutter type labs. (As a teacher, I get it. They are easy and fool proof, and get at concepts we want students exposed to, but they don’t help students truly think solve problems on their own). We are going to start bringing these experiences in more – and we (teachers, education, whatever…) need to let the students make mistakes. We need to let them screw it up and try it again. That is how you learn, and to quote my dear teacher bud Katie Harmon’s poster she had in her classroom, “School is right place to be wrong.”

Problem #3

It was too much for a QPA. There were too many parts we were trying to assess. We need to streamline it to work at solving a problem and let the students determine the solution. We had high hopes to incorporate not only the students making the claim about their tubing, but researching kidney supports water or glucose homeostasis. The splicing together the lab results and their research was more difficult for them than we anticipated (however, there were a few dynamite labs), but I believe most of that was due to lack of exposure to this type of research.

Final Determination:

Overall, this is definitely performance assessment we will keep. However, it needs some real work before we can feel real comfortable putting the ‘Q’ in front of the ‘PA.’ Students really loved working through the lab component and determining which materials could or couldn’t cross the tubing. For myself, the toughest part during the lab was letting go and not giving them too much. They needed to figure this one out on their own, and for some students, it was a real struggle to not be handed every little instruction. And while some needed a bit more support, they did it. We’re already looking forward to making our revisions and doing it again next year!

Beyond Assessment

My seventeenth year at Kennett started with terrible school incident that went national (had friends in California sharing articles about it, not realizing it was the school I teach at…ugh) and ended with a global pandemic.

Ain’t no thing. Right?

However, bridging the distance from the incident to the pandemic, there were moments of sheer awesome – serious shout out to our perfect PCR lab, to my students who successfully figured out a titration method to look at vitamin C breakdown, and to our daily conversations during lunches. I am continually blessed with amazing students and they definitely make my job a million times easier, often letting us focus on how cool biology is or allowing for conversations about something cool in the news (I have never taken the gift I am given each year for granted, trust me). They teach me as much as I teach them, asking some of the most intelligent, thoughtful questions that – frankly – stump me. So, we take the time to research what they want to know. Sometimes we find out; Sometimes it just leads to more questions. But, hey, that’s why I love teaching science. These humans are why I do what I do. They are a force – mark my words – they will impact this world. Future politicians, journalists, doctors, bioengineers, physicists….wow.

AP Bio ’19-’20 for the Win

I’ve had to accept the fact that I will never be in a classroom again with this group of students – and I still cry about it. It’s all the little things and experiences I miss the most. We never got to say goodbye, and in my AP class, all but one are seniors. We’ll never get to jump up and down together over your college acceptances or have me feign irritation over senior skip day. We left on a Friday afternoon in March expecting to be back at it on Monday, but we got the call on Sunday not to return. Pictures drawn on my board showing mitosis. Student writing on my lab tables. Experiments started for independent research – that had to be destroyed. Ugh. And of course, an empty classroom. I know it wasn’t really ‘the end.’ I still ‘see’ them and talk with them over video chats, but it’s not the same, and for this bio teacher, it really sucks. We do labs. We were going to do a CRISPR lab!!

But all hope is not lost, and we are finding ways to make the most of our situation – we will still do our famous “AP Bio Heart Week.” I’ve had students take my course because of this week alone, and I can’t let them down. Heart week will happen. This year it will be a post-AP exam experience, but I promise to share that in another post.


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