Students scoring higher on standardized science test

by Tom Weber, Minnesota Public Radio
July 27, 2010


St. Paul, Minn. — Minnesota students continued to score higher on the state's standardized science test this year.

The test is only in its third year, but there's already been a nearly 10 point gain in the number of kids considered proficient.

More than 178,000 Minnesota students took the test this spring. Nearly 49 percent are considered proficient in science. Three years ago, when the test debuted, just 40 percent were proficient.

Education Commissioner Alice Seagren says it's a nice increase, but it's still not a high enough percentage for a future workforce that's going to need a lot of science know-how.

This science tests stand out in two ways. First, it's administered entirely online -- there are no bubbles to fill in with a No. 2 pencil.

Second, this test doesn't count towards graduation, and school don't face sanctions for poor performance, the way they do for math and reading under the federal No Child Left Behind law. Education Commissioner Alice Seagren says that's telling.

"You see that with no punishment, we're still making nice progress. I think part of it is attitude," Seagren said. "I think our science teachers are so committed to their discipline that they feel it's really important for kids to take it seriously."

There is still a gap in how well students do by ethnicity. Nearly 60 percent of white students are proficient in science in high school, while just 19 percent of black students are proficient.

Schools have made some progress. Among eighth graders, black students scored 5 percentage points higher than last year, and Hispanic students were up 4 percentage points.

Suburban school districts -- including Mahtomedi, Minnetonka, Wayzata and Orono -- continued to have some of the state's best scores.

Fewer than 30 percent of students were proficient in the St. Paul and Minneapolis districts. Some individual schools in those cities had gains, but officials say federal requirements have kept more focus on math and reading.

"Sometimes students are only getting science instruction for 50 minutes, once every three to four days -- at fifth grade, for instance," said Suzanne Kelly, chief of staff for the St. Paul district. And so I think that has the most to do with it -- the time we're able to devote."

Kelly says there's a push in St. Paul to incorporate more science and other subjects into reading and math. A pilot program debuting this fall will put kids in school on Saturday, another potential spot for more science.

There is one last purpose the science test serves, even though it doesn't count for anything. Because it's administered online, the test has been seen as a great practice for administering more tests with computers. That will happen next spring for the state's math tests. The stakes are much higher there: the math test counts towards graduation.

Minnesota's testing director, Dirk Mattson, said the science tests these past three years have shown the students are ready.

"The kids typically are the ones that are very easy to transform in this. It's getting the systems to move and making sure the [computer] labs have the right structure and scheduling," he said. "I think the kids are going to do just fine, we've got to make sure we provide the right supports to the people helping those students."

Mattson said moving tests to computers will also eventually help address what has been a large criticism of Minnesota's current system of testing.

Right now, students take the tests in the spring and have long left that grade by the time the results are released in the summer.

With more online testing, Mattson says teachers and other school leaders will get results quicker and still have time in the same year to work on improvements.