September 25, 2008

Science Scores Shy of Districts’ Expectations

By Lisa Vernon-Sparks

East Greenwich, Exeter-West Greenwich and Coventry are used to the higher achievements they've logged on the state's math, writing and reading exams.

Three West Bay school districts -- East Greenwich, Exeter-West Greenwich and Coventry -- typically are among the sharper performers on standardized state tests.

But the scores emerging from the first state science assessment exam has some administrators in those districts scratching their heads -- because they're used to better.

The science test, administered last spring to 4th-, 8th- and 11th- grade students, produced disappointing percentages of proficiency compared with their scores on exams in mathematics, writing and reading.

Statewide, 36 percent of 4th-grade students, 18 percent of 8th- graders and 17 percent of 11th-graders achieved proficiency on the science exam.

State education officials say districts that did poorly in the inaugural science assessment exam were failing to cover material required under toughened standards. School districts say the material being taught is not in alignment with what is being required now.

Many districts, including Coventry, East Greenwich and Exeter- West Greenwich, for the past several years have been using science kits, a supplement resource to textbooks, to provide a richer experience. The kits, which cover three broad science themes -- life science, physical science and earth and space science -- come with lesson plans and materials for experiments.

Coventry generally outpaced the state averages on the science exam, with 46 percent of 4th-graders and 31 percent of 8th-graders demonstrating proficiency. But only 15 percent of 11th-graders demonstrated proficiency.

In an interview yesterday Coventry Supt. Kenneth R. DiPietro said, "We are above the state average, but that's not good enough. It means other middle schools have a stronger handle on science instruction. The numbers are low across the state. We are smack-dab in the middle. What's more important, we can we learn from the data and improve student achievement."

He said the district has begun to reconsider all the science kits and how the teachers are using them in the classrooms. In the past, the district matched the kits to what was in the science curriculum. This summer, he said, it began the process of readjusting to meet the state standards.

"We have to realign the kits. For example, a fifth-grade kit might have been better in the fourth grade," DiPietro said. "It's a process of discovery, implementing a plan and more importantly, it's a three-year change process."

Of the 460 Exeter-West Greenwich students tested, 37 percent were proficient at the 4th-grade level; 26 percent at the 8th-grade level and 29 percent at the 11th-grade level.

Supt. Thomas Geismar said his district also relies heavily on the science kits, a version used in conjunction with a model adapted by the University of Rhode Island. He said the test results are surprising, but it now gives him a barometer to work with.

"Given the quality of the program, I'm surprised the scores are not better than they are," Geismar said. "Something is out of whack. We've been teaching a solid science program, and I'm very interested in why the test score are disappointing. We have great professional development with a university partner."

Geismar, along with the district's director of curriculum, Nancy Daley, said the first thing the district will do is look at the test and the range of students who just missed attaining proficiency. According to the results, more than 50 percent of the students who took the test were nearly proficient.

"It's better than the state average. They are only off 1 or 2 points. These are fixable things, and we can look at where the students fell short," Daley said. "We can't really move forward until we look at where we are off."

In East Greenwich, considered to be among the top five school districts in the state, 590 students took the exam; proficient results were scored by 58 percent of the 4th-graders, 44 percent of the 8th-graders and 39 percent of the 11th-graders. The district also relies on science kits to bolster its curriculum.

"Our results are not at all encouraging. We were waiting for these test results so we can look at the strengths and weaknesses. I think that is what a good assessment is for," said Supt. Charles E. Meyers. "Some of those schools [which did well] will serve as the benchmark school. It would be interesting to see what they are doing differently and learn from their successes."

Department of Education spokesman Elliot Krieger said the state officials understand that some districts may be grappling with how to proceed.

"These are relatively new standards. One function of these tests is to shine a light on it. Now they are very aware of it. The focus has been so relentless on the math and reading that science got put aside and now that can't be," Krieger said.

Krieger said the kits "are supplementary instructional materials. We thought that it's great method. But they don't cover all of the standards."

Krieger added that if school districts are seeing a lot of students who are partially proficient, that tells the education commission that they understand the principles of science, but there were some things that were not covered.

"They are doing exactly the right thing. So that hopefully, many districts will work on their curriculum and many will move from partially proficient to proficient." [email protected] / (401) 277- 7156

Originally published by Lisa Vernon-Sparks, Journal Staff Writer.

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