Fewer Than Half of Connecticut Students Proficient On National Science Test
Results Prompt Calls For Improvement
By GRACE E. MERRITT
January 25, 2011
HARTFORD — With fewer than half of Connecticut students proficient on a national science test, the state's top education official is vowing to strengthen science education.
"The state will certainly begin to pay more attention to science," said George Coleman, acting education commissioner. "We are going to have to find better ways to intergrate this knowledge and be more explicit about the intent of science to be part of a child's experience."
Results of the national test, known as "The Nation's Report Card," showed that 40 percent of Connecticut fourth-graders scored at or above the proficient level, beating the national average of 32 percent.
The results of the 2009 National Assessment of Educational Progress, released Tuesday, also once again highlighted the performance gap separating white students from minority students and low-income students from their more affluent counterparts.
While Connecticut did better than the national average, education leaders are not satisfied, saying a scientifically literate population is important to Connecticut's economic future and students' future career options.
"If our schools are going to be a part of the economic recovery, we're going to have to be significantly above national average, so we can be a hospitable place for science to thrive," Coleman said. "We just cannot settle for being in the middle of the pack. We need to be among those leading states."
Some experts say the overall results reveal an unintended consequence of the federal No Child Left Behind Act — the narrowing of the school curriculum to focus more on reading and math, leaving less time for science instruction.
The test, administered to fourth- and eighth-graders, shows that proficiency declines as students progress through school, both in Connecticut and nationally. Forty percent of Connecticut's fourth-graders overall scored at or above the proficient level, while the number dropped to 35 percent in eighth grade.
The results also reveal the persistent academic achievement gap that has consistently shown up on math and reading tests.
Overall, 53 percent of white students scored at or above proficient, compared with 9 percent of black students and 11 percent of Hispanic students. Meanwhile 12 percent of poor students performed at the proficient level and above, compared with 52 percent of their more affluent peers.
Students whose first language is not English scored particularly low, with only 4 percent reaching proficiency, compared with 5 percent nationally. This segment comprises 10 to 12 percent of Connecticut's student body, said state Department of Education spokesman Tom Murphy.
"We continue to see pronounced gaps in student performance between these student groups," Murphy said. "This is a major issue for our state's future. If Connecticut wants to be a leader on this issue, we need to provide resources and support for our urban classrooms to address increasing needs for their children to overcome the effects of poverty."
Connecticut boys did slightly better than girls, with 42 percent meeting or exceeding proficiency compared with 38 percent of girls.
Connecticut is working to clarify state standards for science knowledge and curriculum to describe what skills students should acquire at each grade level. The state has spent $2 million to recruit and train master teachers to serve as instructional coaches. More than 150 teachers have taken college science courses and enrolled in summer programs to improve science teaching techniques.
In addition, students will be required to take more science courses in high school starting in 2014 when new high school reforms take effect. Students will have to take three science courses, including at least one each in life science and physical science, as well as a one-credit elective in science, technology, engineering or math.
Richard C. Cole, president and CEO of the Connecticut Academy for Education in Mathematics, Science & Technology, said the key to improvement is to change the culture in what he descibes as a "math-phobic and science-complacent country."
But rather than focus on tests, he said, parents and teachers should look for ways to make science enticing to better engage students.
"We need to talk about what excites kids," Cole said. "Students in fourth grade do better than kids in eighth grade. Kids in eighth grade do better than 12th grade. We are losing children. They're not excited about science. What we need to do is excite parents and entice students to become more engaged in their own learning."
The national test results are from a new, more challenging test designed to challenge students to think on their feet and solve problems rather than simply answer a multiple-choice question.
Overall, the test revealed a tiny number of students reaching the test's top level and a large number falling below basic, a trend that Alan J. Friedman, a member of the National Assessment of Educational Progress' governing board, called distressing.
"I don't think science is an elective. I think it's essential," Friedman said during a news conference Tuesday morning.
Friedman said students should learn science to have more than a basic understanding of the world around them and issues that affect them, from global warming to genetically modified crops and childhood immunizations.
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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