Course Evaluation

  We are committed to a thorough course evaluation of Ecology/Environmental Science 9.

Some History

Two previous Superintendents stated their willingness to hire an objective, outside evaluator to assess the success of the 9th grade Science program. We welcomed this offer; and recommended that such an evaluator be someone with a life or physical science background, experienced in secondary school curriculum evaluation. Unfortunately, funds that had been set aside for this purpose were withdrawn and reassigned during the Winter of 2009, due to other pressing budgetary needs.

At this time, there is no one serving as Curriculum Director for the District. There are fewer resources and personnel available to us for evaluation than are available to many of the schools that have been selected for us as ’comparison districts’ by the Amherst Regional School Committee.*

We review the performance of our students continuously in order to monitor the effectiveness of our program in meeting our stated curricular goals. To this end, teachers have contributed many hours of uncompensated work in order to gather data helpful in the evaluative effort. We have been assisted in this effort by our high school administrators, school secretaries, and by the staff of ARPS Information Systems.

Evaluative Steps Being Taken

As is standard curricular evaluative practice, we are evaluating the course against its stated goals, as presented in our course proposal to the School Committee, in January 2008.

1st Goal: Are core biological, chemical, physical and mathematical content and skills being provided to all students?

Our course is aligned with the Massachusetts Curriculum Frameworks. Performance on the Biology or Chemistry MCAS exam, a criterion-referenced instrument, will be the measure used to ascertain whether students have demonstrated mastery of core content and skills. Our course objectives (which exceed those required for the MCAS) will be the ’criteria.’ Tracking the passing / proficient rates over several years (including the percent passing on the 1st attempt, 2nd attempt, etc.) will provide data regarding the success of the program. It will be possible to analyze the performance of specific subgroups of students, using the data provided to us by the State with the school’s MCAS results. We can also use the State-provided data to compare our results to those of other schools in the Commonwealth.

The Class of 2012 is the first student group to have taken the Ecology / Environmental Science as 9th graders. These students will take the MCAS in June 2010; their MCAS results will comprise our baseline data. There is MCAS data available from the Classes of 2010 and 2011; however, meaningful comparisons are difficult, because students were taking different courses with different objectives. In addition, the first half of the previous course was heterogeneously grouped; whereas in the current program, students take either a College Prep or an Honors course for the entire year.

There is ongoing formative and summative assessment occurring in each class, identifying areas of student strength and challenge. Teachers adjust instruction in response to the results of these assessments. 9th grade Science teachers have been asked to present their methods of data collection and analysis from formative assessment to both ARHS Department Heads, and the general faculty.

Common exams are administered to students, and the results analyzed. In addition, teachers of 10th grade Biology / Honors Biology and Honors Chemistry are administering assessments at the beginning of their courses to evaluate student mastery of 9th grade content that will be covered on the MCAS.

92% of Honors students, 87% of College Prep students, and 78% of parent / guardian surveys agree with the statement that students "apply mathematical concepts" in 9th grade science. Integration of mathematical concepts is a key recommendation in science education reform.

2nd Goal: Are students being engaged in meaningful field and laboratory investigations of the Earth’s physical-biological systems?

Careful examination of the curriculum is used to assess this goal. Students carry out extended laboratory investigations that relating to the student’s local environment. Ecology and Environmental Science at our school feature in-depth studies where students conduct genuine research. These investigations may range over several days of field work, and a week or more of analysis. One of our benchmark labs was recognized nationally as a model by the National Environmental Education Foundation. Description of our evaluative component was a required part of the grant approval process.

The tool used to assess student learning from field and laboratory investigations is the lab report. Students are instructed in great detail about how to produce a formal lab report. Required components include a title, abstract, introduction, methods, results (including raw data), calculations using significant figures and scientific notation, graphs and tables, and discussion, which includes a consideration of uncertainty. The end result is a thoughtful and polished report, modeled upon professional scientific publications.

Finally, 91% of parent/guardian surveys (both College Prep and Honors) indicate agreement with the following statement: (Students) "have the opportunity for field investigations."

A majority of surveys of both College Prep and Honors students indicate agreement with the following statements: "we conduct meaningful experiments;" "we spend time in science on real world situations ;" and "What we are learning is important."

3rd Goal: Are student needs for academic challenge and support being met?

This goal is measured through teacher observations, and ongoing review of student work, including testing. Teachers review student work both independently, and in groups of teachers teaching the same course. Common rubrics are used. Tracking sheets have been designed, which are used to identify student mastery of each component of benchmark assignments, and to track student progress. Teachers collaborate with Guidance and Support Staff to meet student needs. Regular communication with parents/guardians is in place through the Comment/Appraisal process.

Surveys indicate that 86% of parents and guardians find the course "academically challenging" for their children.

78% of parent / guardian surveys indicate agreement with the statement: "My child receives the support s/he needs."

4th Goal: Are students being educated on the effects of human impact on the Earth’s systems, as recommended by leading scientific and educational organizations?

Careful examination of the curriculum is used to assess this goal, supplemented by inspection of national standards. For example, The National Science Education Standards, developed by the National Research Council, call for students in grade 9-12 to learn about "natural resources; environmental quality; natural and human-induced hazards; and science and technology in local, national, and global challenges." (p.108) An examination of the 9th grade Ecology /Environmental Science curriculum maps reveals that content in these areas are addressed in the course units on Agriculture, Soil, and Water Management, Energy, Biodiversity, and Air Pollution & Global Atmospheric Change.

Student outcomes on these unit tests will provide evidence regarding student mastery of these topics. As with other units in the course, teachers administer common unit tests, perform item analyses, and review student work, tracking individual student progress toward the course objectives.

Vertical Teaming Goals:

Is curriculum alignment with High School Science grades 9-12 in progress?

Progress on vertical teaming 9-12 is evidenced by ongoing meetings among the members of the Science Department. Meetings have been held regarding course expectations (such as lab report format requirements), content (overlaps and omissions between grade levels, as well as the integration of mathematics), and the progression of skills from grades 9-12.

Is curriculum alignment with Middle School Science grades 7-12 in progress?

Progress on vertical teaming 7-12 is evidenced by the ongoing curricular meetings between High School and ARMS Science teachers. In 2009, these groups met to discuss changes in the 9th grade curriculum, and alignment with Middle School Science. ARMS teachers will be piloting a modified version of the 9th grade lab format this year, likely to be a lab on F = ma, involving model cars. In addition, teachers of both schools shared strategies for mathematical conversions, and expectations for graphing.

Is curriculum alignment with all schools grades K-12 in progress?

Progress on vertical teaming K-12 is evidenced by ongoing meetings between the Science curricular leaders for the elementary, middle, and high schools. The most recent K-12 meeting was held in Fall 2009, with Patricia Cahill (Elementary), Elliott Kelly (ARMS), Mary McCarthy (ARHS), and Rena Moore (Administrator) participating.

Additional Evaluative Interests

We are also interested in examining data regarding factors other than our explicit goals, and are in the process of gathering data in these areas:

  • Longitudinal: Comparison of Unit I grades in Honors Chemistry, of students who took Ecology / Environmental Science in 9th grade vs. those who took Honors Earth Science or Honors Biology in 9th grade. The early data looks promising; however, we do not yet have a large enough sample to ensure that the results are statistically significant. Several years of data will be required to have an adequate sample, and to form meaningful conclusions.

  • SAT II Biology grades are available from the past several years. It is possible to compare scores on these tests for students in the current 9th grade course vs. those who took 9th grade science under the former sequence. It's important to note, however, that a self-selected group takes these exams, which are not mandatory; therefore, comparisons may not yield useful data.

  • We are also interested in looking at enrollments of students in groups that have historically been underepresented in Honors courses in our school (ex. students of color, students on free and reduced lunch). We are gathering data on enrollments of students in 10th grade Honors classes: Students who took the former 9th grade sequence vs. those who have taken the new sequence. We would like to track this data over several years to see if enrollment patterns change.

[*For example, the Brookline, MA school district has a Deputy Superintendent for Teaching and Learning, Director of Program Review, and a Director of Data Management and Evaluation. The Montclair, NJ school district has an Assistant Superintendent for Curriculum and Instruction, a Supervisor of Curriculum, and a Student Information Analyst who analyzes student performance data. Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools has an Assistant Superintendent of Instructional Services, Executive Director of Testing & Program Evaluation, Executive Director of Instruction, and a Math & Science Coordinator.]  

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