May 25, 2006
By ROBERT A. FRAHM, Courant Staff Writer
America's fourth-graders made gains in science performance on a national test while eighth-graders held steady and high school seniors posted declines, a government report said Wednesday.
Connecticut, however, like many states, reported no significant changes since fourth- and eighth-graders were last tested in 2000.
Experts viewed the latest scores - particularly a decline in performance over the past decade by high school seniors - as a worrisome sign, especially as the nation seeks more scientists and engineers.
Although Connecticut students scored above the national average, only one of three fourth- and eighth-graders in the state's public schools scored at or above the proficiency level on the National Assessment of Educational Progress science exam last year.
"It's fairly well recognized that students are not where we want them to be," said Terri Clark, vice president of the Connecticut Academy for Education in Mathematics, Science and Technology, which promotes science and math in the state's schools. "The question comes down to: What do we do about it?"
The latest test results come in the wake of numerous reports warning of a shortage of scientists. Educators, business leaders and politicians, including President Bush, have called for U.S. schools to put more emphasis on science.
"I've seen so many students my age disillusioned with science," said Pratistha Koirala, 17, a senior at E.O. Smith High School in Storrs and a first-prize winner in this year's Connecticut Science Fair. "I've always been interested in science. ... I think having such great teachers not only in high school, but middle school, has helped develop my passion for science."
One of those teachers, E.O. Smith science department chairwoman Julia Sherman, said science often gets less emphasis because many schools have put increasing focus on reading and mathematics.
"I believe reading and math can be taught through science," Sherman said. "I think we're missing a lot of kids when their interest starts to grow, because we're ignoring it."
Although Connecticut did not see a significant shift in performance, nine states showed improvement at grade four and 11 states at grade eight since 2000. Four states showed declines at grade eight.
The national test measures skills in earth, life and physical science. It was given to a random sampling of more than 300,000 students. State and national reports were compiled for grades four and eight, but data samples were too small to issue state-by-state reports for grade 12, officials said.
U.S. Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings cited the improvement of science scores among fourth-graders as "evidence that accountability and assessments are working to raise achievement levels, even in subjects not directly tested under the No Child Left Behind Act," the federal government's sweeping school reform law.
Across the nation, an average of 27 percent of fourth- and eighth-graders were rated as proficient or better based on the latest science test. Although Connecticut exceeded that mark, state Education Commissioner Betty J. Sternberg said the state's 33 percent proficiency level was unacceptably low.
Science classes could get more attention in the state as schools re-examine their curriculums and teacher training programs to meet state science guidelines adopted two years ago. In addition, schools are gearing up for the addition of a science exam to the statewide mastery test in spring of 2008.
"We need to do better and pay more attention to science education," said Elizabeth Buttner, a science consultant at the state Department of Education.
By the time the next nationwide test of science is given three years from now, the new science guidelines and the mastery test in science should have an effect, she said.
"I am optimistic we'll see growth by 2009," she said.
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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