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Bi-Ology?

As Packer students, we are encouraged to push ourselves academically and take classes which will force us to think deeply. In order to achieve this goal, Packer sorts students into tracked math and science courses.

When Packer students enter high school their freshman year, they are sorted into either a standard and accelerated physics class. These tracks extend into sophomore year with the option for either standard and accelerated chemistry classes, but, when it comes time to begin biology class, all students are, as of right now, taught at the same level.

Next year, though, this lack of consistency within the science department will change with the implementation of Accelerated Biology to Packer’s course offerings.  

The style of science class where every student is taught at the same level used to be consistent throughout Packer’s science curriculum. More recently, though, Packer started tracking students, splitting them into “standard” and “accelerated” levels. Typically, accelerated science courses at Packer move faster, hence why they’re dubbed “accelerated,” and go more in depth.

Kofi Donnelly, Head of the Science Department, explains the benefits of tracking students. “Right now, as has been the case for a number of years, biology teachers have said that in a biology class there are some students who could benefit from the class moving faster, and being deeper and more challenging, and some students who could benefit from having more support and more guidance,” he said. “Having a class that has that spectrum in it means that the course really isn’t appropriate for anyone. We believe this shift will serve student needs better.”

Kerry Kline, Upper School Science Teacher, elaborated further, adding that, “There will be more emphasis on chemistry as well in the accelerated class that we might not get into at the standard level.”   

Whether a Packer student is sorted into accelerated or standard science classes is based on a confluence of factors, one of which is the student’s 8th-grade math grade. For students who are new to Packer, a survey is sent out to their current teachers which asks specifically about the skill set that is necessary for accelerated physics. For returning students, their middle school science teacher recommends them for either an accelerated or standard class.

“When I first came to Packer, I was actually very surprised that the old system was in effect. It doesn’t really make any sense. If you think that leveling is necessary in ninth grade biology, and you think it’s necessary in tenth grade science, there’s no rationale to say that there shouldn’t be for eleventh grade,” continued Mr. Donnelly. “There is no pedagogical reason for that. If you believe there shouldn’t be any tracking at all, fine. Then ninth grade shouldn’t be tracked, tenth grade shouldn’t be tracked, and eleventh grade shouldn’t be tracked. If you are going to level it, there has to be some consistent way of doing it.”

Kerry, who teaches both eleventh grade and AT Biology, has similar thoughts.

“I was in favor of changing it,” she said. “I’ve taught at schools where there’s one bio class and schools where there had been standard and accelerated. I think that when it’s split into two it’s actually better for students in terms of keeping a pace that works for kids and delving into content that works for kids. When you have an accelerated and standard class I think you can help the students more.”

Generally, students agree. An anonymous biology student said, “For people like me, it’s not as big of an issue because I’m not planning on going into science, but for people who are either considering pre-medical fields or anything related to science this is a big issue.”

Ellie Elsesser (‘20), another current biology student, has similar thoughts about biology class.

“I think that if an advanced class in bio was taught differently and would go into more depth, I would rather take that because I want to go into psychology and I want to learn bio.” Ellie said, though, that she “liked that the class was an equalizer.”

Ultimately the science department’s main goal in tracking is to sort students into a class which provides them with the best learning environment. Mr. Donnelly articulated that aim well: “Our goal is to craft courses in which students can be appropriately challenged and able to succeed.”

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