Science scores latest to slip
FCAT and national testing results tell a similar story: Science literacy is falling among the nation's students.
By RON MATUS and DONNA WINCHESTER
Published May 25, 2006
Florida students are getting better at reading and math. But don't ask them to dissect a frog.
State and national test results released Wednesday show they perform poorly in science.
Barely one-third have mastered basic scientific knowledge, state scores show. And nationally, Florida fourth-graders rank in the bottom half of states while eighth-graders wallow near the bottom, period.
"Obviously, we have a lot of work to do in middle school," Education Commissioner John Winn said.
That work needs to begin soon. Starting next year, scores on the state science test will be factored into school grades.
Wednesday's sobering news emerged after the near-simultaneous release of scores on the science portions of both the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test and the National Assessment of Educational Progress, often called "the nation's report card." It also arrived a day after the latest FCAT reading scores gave Gov. Jeb Bush and state education officials something to cheer about: big gains in middle school.
Educators warn the anemic science scores are surfacing at a time when science literacy couldn't be more important in a global economy. They issued calls for beefed-up standards, better trained teachers and a national commitment to science education.
"This is a serious problem for the nation as we move further into the 21st century," said Mary Frances Taymans, a member of the National Assessment Governing Board, the bipartisan group that administers the national test.
But some observers caution that remedies are complicated. Others point to a lack of consensus on fixes, including the best way to hire, train and retain good science teachers.
"I see a lot of hand wringing, but I don't see any commitment of funds," said Eugenie Scott, executive director of the National Center for Science Education.
The latest national test, which is given to a sampling of students in grades 4, 8 and 12, shows elementary school students have made modest gains over the past decade, with 68 percent now performing at or above a basic level.
But middle and high school students continue to flounder: 57 percent of eighth-graders scored at basic or above on the test, down from 60 percent in 1996, while 12th-grade scores dipped from 57 to 54 percent.
Educators saw a clear connection between the emphasis many states have put on reading and math in early grades and the progress of fourth-graders in science.
"It's not a very big stretch ... to think if a student can read better, and do arithmetic better, they're going to do better in science," said Darvin Winick, who chairs the National Assessment Governing Board.
Florida, which has been a national leader in reading in early grades, saw its fourth-graders ranked 26th out of the 44 states that participated in the test, tied with Tennessee, Texas and Oklahoma.
Its eighth-graders ranked 36th. A state-by-state comparison was not possible for the 12th-grade results.
The scores on the science FCAT were the second blast in Wednesday's double-whammy.
This was the fourth year it was administered, but the first time scores have been reported by achievement levels. All students in grades 5, 8 and 11 took it.
The ugly result: 35 percent of fifth- and 11th-graders scored at or above grade level, while only 32 percent of eighth graders hit that standard.
Scores did not vary widely in west-central Florida, but Citrus County fifth- and eighth-graders led their respective packs, while Citrus 11th-graders tied for tops with Hillsborough.
The middle and high school scores were especially disappointing, said Robert Orlopp, K-12 supervisor for Pinellas schools.
In upper grades, "every student takes science every day - earth, space, physical. We cover the waterfront on what's on the test," he said. "I find it curious that those scores haven't gone up appreciably."
Orlopp said new textbooks aligned with state science standards should speed progress. Another potential solution: revising state standards in coming years so they emphasize fewer concepts. That would allow science teachers to nix "science trivia" and teach more important things more thoroughly, Orlopp said.
"I have to believe - and I think there's a metric ton of data to support this - that you remember longer what you actually experience," he said. "When it comes time to sit for the FCAT, you're more likely to remember an experience as opposed to notes you took during a teacher's lecture."
Especially if the teacher is so-so.
Many school districts have trouble finding and keeping teachers with science backgrounds because they can generally earn more pay in the private sector.
In Florida, more than 1,000 science teachers in 2004 - about 12 percent - were not certified to teach science, according to state figures.
"I'm absolutely worried about it," Winn said.
But his proposed solution - paying science teachers more - is resisted by many other teachers and local school officials.
Despite the gloomy test scores, some educators saw a silver lining Wednesday. Now that the science FCAT is becoming high stakes, science education in Florida is likely to get more attention, said Nancy Marsh, the high school science supervisor in Hillsborough.
"I think teachers and students will be a little more concerned with their achievement," she said.
In a related development Wednesday, Bush and Winn announced the results of the "norm-referenced test" that is administered along with the FCAT. It allows Florida to compare the performance of its students to their peers nationwide.
Florida students scored from 11 to 20 percentile points higher than the national average in reading, and from 17 to 24 points higher in math.
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The state's FCAT scores Web site includes scores from the FCAT Science Sunshine State Standards test going back through 2003. Visit www.firn. edu/doe/sas/fcat/fcatscor. htm and click on "FCAT Science SSS Scores."