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District 833 science scores on the way up

In Callie Chenault's earth science class at Oltman Middle School, Drue Isaacs (left) and Addison Johnson cut magazine pages as puzzle pieces. The assignment helps students understand the theory of continental drift. Bulletin photo by Judy Spooner

School District 833 fifth- and eighth-graders next month will take the second year of the Minnesota Comprehensive Assessment III tests online.

Students, traditionally in 10th grade, when they take final exams in biology, will also take their science tests. Within the exam are science questions on engineering, earth science and space and life science that students must pass to graduate.

District 833 science test scores have trended upward since the exams were first given in 2005, five years after the first state math and reading tests were introduced under the federal No Child Left Behind law.

On tests taken last spring, the district ranks first when averaged scores are compared to districts with similar student populations such as Lakeville, Mounds View, Osseo, Eagan and White Bear Lake, according to Tom LaBounty, District 833 director of research, evaluation and assessment.

Even though the science standards have changed and every year a new student population takes the tests, scores are going up. They're not in the 80th percentile like the MCA writing test scores, but they are showing improvement all the same.

One of the reasons scores are below reading and math scores is because science takes a backseat to the current emphasis on raising math and reading test scores. For example, Oltman Middle School students have 84 minutes of math instruction daily. Science classes are shorter.

While the district shows an overall upward trend, eighth-grade science scores showed a slight decline for 2012, but middle schools across the state had similar results, LaBounty said.

Park and Woodbury high schools have plateaued but East Ridge High School gained.

Overall, however, scores have increased slightly more than 20 percent since 2008, the year before standards were changed to add more emphasis on engineering and scientific inquiry. There are fewer questions recalling facts and more about how things work and what scientific principles are in play. More of the same direction will be in the new standards. Students will learn more from "project learning" by observing what happens and why, LaBounty said in a recent interview.

This trend coincides with what Superintendent Keith Jacobus told local legislators in January. Students need to do more "deep thinking," he said, adding that a lot of class time is spent covering the many areas being tested in math and reading.

The largest gains are seen in elementary school. In 2008, the average score was 45.8 percent proficient, but it rose to 63 percent last year.

A constant in all the test scores since first administered is that the district performs better than the state average.

In 2008, the average for fifth-graders in District 833 was 41.7 percent proficient and 69.2 last year while the state average was 57.9.

In 2008, in district high schools the average score was 50 percent proficient and 70 percent last year, 20 percentage points above the state average.

Fifth-grade tests measure what students have learned since third grade and the eighth-grade test includes what's learned from sixth grade forward.

The district's fifth-graders' strengths on the test were in the areas of earth, space and life science. Middle schools seem to be neither weak nor strong in any area. High schools are strong in life science.

There's also good news for the gender gap that was pronounced in 2005 when boys were doing much better than girls on tests. The gap was statistically non-existent in 2012.

The achievement gap between white students and those of sub-groups such as Asian, Black and Hispanic students are showing a gradual change. Those groups in District 833 are exceeding the state average within their group by more than 20 percent, LaBounty said.

Judy Spooner
Judy Spooner is the longest-serving staff writer at the South Washington County Bulletin. Spooner, who covers education and features in addition to writing a weekly column, has been with the newspaper for over 30 years.
(651) 459-7600