Biology Placement Program Gets a Makeover

Science department introduces unleveled trial period

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Madera Longstreet-Lipson, On Campus Editor

Starting this fall, instead of a teacher recommendation form determining freshmen biology placement, first-year students spend six weeks in an unleveled course. During this six-week period, students work through three units without being graded and receive feedback from their teachers before selecting an honors or non-honors class.

Upper School (US) Science Teacher Michael Chapman said a combination of factors inspired this decision: students’ unreliable access to in-person education last year; varying skill sets depending on a student’s middle school; and general concerns about ninth grade science course selection.

“We wanted to give all students equitable access to the skills and the resources necessary in order for them to make a decision about what path that they would like to choose,” Mr. Chapman said.

At least two sections of biology run each block except G Block for a total of 13 sections. Freshmen got an informal glimpse of Biology at Bivouac during the new “Bio@Biv” activity and now are going through three units at school: “Who am I as a scientist?”; “Who am I as a learner?”; and ecology.

At the end of this period, teachers will make a recommendation, students will select their preferred course, and the science department will reconfigure the classes. Though some students may have to rearrange their schedules, the science department hopes to minimize this through the two sections in each block.

Students can use unofficial scores, feedback, and their teacher recommendations as a way to determine which class they want to take. If a student and teacher have different ideas about which course is the best fit, Mr. Chapman said, a discussion will take place between the student, their science teacher, their advisor, and US Science Department Head Rachel Riemer. He said the choice will, however, lie with the student as much as possible.

US Science Teacher Terry Cox, who has taught biology at the school for four years, said this change will help teachers understand students’ interests, skill sets, and strengths in class before making a decision about the level of their course.

“We hope that by building this strong foundation and getting a better sense of who these kids are, it will make it not only easier to level, but it will also make the leveling more accurate,” he said.

The concept of leveling has been on the minds of science teachers in the past, Ms. Riemer said, but the department decided to examine it more closely this past year, in part due to the impacts of COVID-19 on students’ science skills. All science department faculty met four or five times over the course of last year to discuss leveling for biology. Mr. Chapman and the 9th grade Biology teachers spent time this summer redesigning the first six weeks of the year to support the un-leveled beginning.

“It felt like we needed to have time as a class and as a grade to land at the school and land in our science curriculum and understand what we want to accomplish before we even talked about levels and what levels meant,” Ms. Riemer said.

Student agency in the process was important to the plan, she added.

“We didn’t want this to feel like one long tryout, which is why we went to student choice in the end, instead of teacher choice,” Ms. Riemer said. “We didn’t want to start the year with that kind of performance anxiety.”

For Ms. Riemer, the biggest challenge with this system was finding a way to fairly assess students during this six-week period and to give them a sense of what the different levels are like. In order to do the latter, the curriculum involves showing students examples of honors and non-honors questions and writings.

Dinero Jelley ’25, who is taking biology this year, said introducing levels too early in the year can spur stress, competition, and misinformed decisions.

“Students shouldn’t feel pressured to go into an honors class if they can’t handle it,” she said. “Now that we’re starting at the same level, no one can feel intimidated by an honors class.”

Students who want to take Honors Biology but feel unsure of if they can handle it can use this opportunity to get acclimated to the program before making a final decision, she added.

Madeleine Brodeur ’23 said that she would have appreciated having this six-week period to understand what Honors Biology would look like.

“Honors Biology was something I was unprepared for, and just having a small system where I could experiment with the program would’ve been so stress relieving and such a great way to enter the science curriculum,” she said.

Chief Learning Officer Jed Lippard described his role in implementing this change as “sounding board and thinking partner.”

“Learning should be the primary driver, not achievement,” he said. “Sometimes we conflate those two things, and to me, this approach to the start of ninth grade really amplifies a commitment to learning.”

Ultimately, Dr. Lippard said, he believes this approach meets the needs of students on a holistic level and supports them in the transition to high school.

“We’re constantly thinking of other ways at the school to make sure that we treat the humanity, not just the scholarship, of our students.”