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Science gets its due next year in FCAT

Teachers and supervisors hope a new science exam, to be added next year, will encourage more effective instruction in the subject.

By KELLY RYAN

© St. Petersburg Times, published March 12, 2001


Just about had it with the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test?

Wait, there's more.

This time next year, the state will add science to its repertoire of annual assessment tests in writing, reading and math. Fifth-, eighth- and 10th-graders will take the science exam, which will be included in public schools' A-to-F grades in 2004.

Although many of Florida's teachers have complained about the state's emphasis on the FCAT, the science portion actually was requested by science teachers and supervisors. They thought schools were scaling back or skipping science instruction as pressure mounted to do well on the subjects already tested by the state.

"A lot of people feel that if their area is not on the test, it starts to lose its significance," said Jay Feliciani, a Pasco schools administrator who is president of the Florida Association of Science Supervisors. "What was happening, especially at the elementary level, you were seeing very little science being taught."

Most districts across the state are giving the reading and math tests this week. Writing was at the end of February.

It will cost the state Department of Education about $3.6-million over three years for a private contractor to develop and administer the science exam. It will be a mix of multiple choice and short-response questions, with about 20 percent of the test requiring students to write out their answers.

Passing the science FCAT will not be required for graduation, though it will be part of the formula used to determine school accountability grades. Because the scores won't count until 2004, state officials have not decided whether the science test will be as important as writing, reading and math.

The new test will pose challenges.

In Pinellas, for example, middle school science is divided each year: earth science in sixth grade, life science in seventh and physical science in eighth. In high school, students have some freedom in choosing which classes to take.

Hillsborough teaches what is called comprehensive science in middle school, which means students learn a mix of earth, life and physical science each year.

No matter how they teach the subject, teachers are not sure how they can cover all of the state-required material by test time in February. Then there's the issue of having time to review information that might have been covered years before.

"It's a lot of material," said Andi Ringer, Hillsborough County's supervisor of middle school science. "This spring, we are going to look at our curriculum and see if there are subjects we could trim."

Science is not one of the three R's, so why bother testing it every year?

For one thing, science teachers don't want to get lost in the shuffle.

Ringer said middle school teachers have noticed in the past couple of years that fewer students are leaving elementary school with a solid understanding of science. Tom Stanton, Pinellas' supervisor of elementary science, said he encourages teachers to spend 30 minutes a day -- at least -- on mammals, weather, dinosaurs and other topics.

He knows some teachers don't do that much.

"We felt like science was at least as important as these other items," said Bob Orlopp, Pinellas' supervisor of secondary science. "If it were assessed, we could be reasonably assured that it would be taught."

Consider a student such as Mike Edge, a sophomore at Osceola High School in Seminole. He acknowledges that he might need to remember some things he learns in science, but he doesn't think it needs to be very much. Plus, he said he already has forgotten what he learned a couple of weeks ago.

"You don't sit at the gas station and say, 'Wow! Biodiversity!' " said Mike, 16.

Orlopp thinks future science instruction will be more relevant to students such as Mike. Now, some science teachers still advise their students to memorize how many legs a grasshopper has.

By using the Internet, trivia is a few clicks away.

More important, Orlopp says, is to teach students how to use scientific processes, such as developing theories and collecting data, to make smart observations about people, Earth and the solar system, and how they interact.

If those general science principles are what's tested on the FCAT -- and Orlopp thinks that will be the case -- that will force teachers to adjust.

"We don't want to learn trivia," said Melissa Protomastro, who heads the science department at Carwise Middle School in Palm Harbor. "We do want to learn to think."

- Times staff writer Stephen Hegarty contributed to this report.

The FCAT, science-style

THE COST: $3.6-million over three years to develop and administer it.

THE TEST: A mix of multiple choice and short-response questions.

THE SCORES: Scores won't count for the FCAT until 2004, when it will be used to determine school accountability grades.

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