The introduction of the Force Concept Inventory (FCI) by David Hestenes and colleagues in 1992 produced a remarkable impact within the community of physics teachers. An instrument to measure student comprehension of the Newtonian concept of force, the FCI demonstrates that active learning leads to far superior student conceptual learning than didactic lectures. Compared to a working knowledge of physics, biological literacy and illiteracy have an even more direct, dramatic, and personal impact. They shape public research and reproductive health policies, the acceptance or rejection of technological advances, such as vaccinations, genetically modified foods and gene therapies, and, on the personal front, the reasoned evaluation of product claims and lifestyle choices. While many students take biology courses at both the secondary and the college levels, there is little in the way of reliable and valid assessment of the effectiveness of biological education. This lack has important consequences in terms of general bioliteracy and, in turn, for our society. Here we describe the beginning of a community effort to define what a bioliterate person needs to know and to develop, validate, and disseminate a tiered series of instruments collectively known as the Biology Concept Inventory (BCI), which accurately measures student comprehension of concepts in introductory, genetic, molecular, cell, and developmental biology. The BCI should serve as a lever for moving our current educational system in a direction that delivers a deeper conceptual understanding of the fundamental ideas upon which biology and biomedical sciences are based.