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Published July 27 2010

Minnesota students fall short in science

Minnesota students im­proved on a state test gauging their science smarts. But in the test’s third year, more than 50 percent of test takers continued to fall short of proficiency.

The test has bedeviled most Minnesota students since the state started administering it in 2008. As statewide proficiency across grades has edged toward the 50 percent mark, some have questioned whether the test is just too tough.

But Minnesota Education Commissioner Alice Seagren said tough is right if the state is to give its students an edge in a global jobs competition that puts a premium on science knowhow.

“We continue to show steady improvement, and I’m pleased with that,” Seagren said.

This year, roughly 49 percent of Minnesota public school students scored proficient on the test, compared to 40 percent in 2008. Students in grades five and eight and through high school take the interactive online assessment.

Unlike standardized math and reading tests, the science test does not count toward a district’s compliance with the federal No Child Left Behind law.

In Moorhead, students made robust gains at the high school level, a 7

percentage point increase in proficiency to about 56 percent. Proficiency went up slightly for eighth-graders and slipped somewhat in the fifth grade.

“We have lots of work to do in this area,” said Superintendent Lynne Kovash. “But the scores show our students have a good foundation in science.”

Most area districts made strides in science proficiency, some of them substantial: 13 percentage points across grades in Lake Park-Audubon and 10 percentage points in Detroit Lakes. Others lost ground over last year.

Barnesville led the pack with 56 percent of its students scoring proficient.

District officials said several factors might have helped. Barnesville has placed a more intense focus on mathematics and tried to extend science teaching beyond the classroom, through a high school Science Question of the Day or the popular River Watch Program, in partnership with the local watershed district.

“We have three young teachers in our science department,” said high school Principal Bryan Strand. “They are very hands-on and get students excited about science.”

Still, Strand said, results remained underwhelming, and he wondered if it’s the test, not students: “First, you look at the teachers, and then you ask, ‘Is this test too impossible?’ ”

Seagren’s answer to that question is no. She noted the state designed the test with input from educators.

“Our students need to have more science knowledge if they are going to compete in the environment we are facing,” Seagren said, adding, “Our test is only a reflection of what teachers in the state say our students need to know or be able to do.”

This fall, districts will begin making the transition to new, more rigorous science standards.

“There really is a concern about the test and what we’re testing,” said Kovash. “But we want our students to excel. We have to push students to meet these high standards.”

Readers can reach Forum reporter Mila Koumpilova at (701) 241-5529