Science scores for Vermont’s fourth-graders slipped 6 percentage points in 2013. Only 47 percent of students scored at a proficient level or higher — the lowest percentage since 2008, when the NECAP science test was first administered.
The NECAP tests, or New England Common Assessment Program, are used by Vermont, New Hampshire, Rhode Island and Maine to measure math, writing, reading and science proficiency for grades three through 11. Fourth-, eighth-, and 11th-graders take the science test annually.
Proficiency levels are consistently lower in the later grades — 32 percent of eighth-graders and 31 percent of 11th-graders were proficient or higher in 2013 — but these scores saw less change this year. The figures represent a 2 percent gain from the previous year for eighth-graders, and a 2 percent drop for 11th-graders.
The lag in scores for low-income students is even starker at those levels. Income level is gauged by whether students receive free or reduced-cost lunch. Only 17 percent of eighth-graders on the free/reduced lunch program and 16 percent of 11th-graders had proficient science scores in 2013. Thirty-two percent of fourth-graders at this income level scored proficiently.
According to the Agency of Education, the average gap in scores between students who receive free or reduced lunches and those who do not has stayed mostly steady at 25 percent.
Addressing the fourth-grade scores, Michael Hock, state director of educational assessment, said it’s hard to write off a 6-point dip.
“We don’t usually get hugely upset if it’s within a point of the previous year,” Hock said, but “that [six point drop] probably is statistically significant.”
Hock said it’s also discouraging that one section in particular — the scientific inquiry component — tripped up students.
“I’m a little disappointed that not only did the scores not go up, but when we analyzed the scores, we saw kids still struggling with the inquiry part,” he said.
That section, according to Hock, “requires students to apply the scientific processes to a real-life, hands-on investigation.”
“We really are encouraging schools to give kids more hands-on experience rather than having them memorize who invented the lightbulb and things like that,” Hock said. “If nothing else, our Vermont kids should be able to read a newspaper or magazine article and know the difference between real and pseudo-science.”
A news release from the Agency of Education notes that Rhode Island and New Hampshire saw similar dips in their fourth-grade science scores. The agency sums up the results as “indicating improvement in some grades and areas that still require focus.”
One possible explanation for the drop, according to Hock, is that science scores aren’t subject to the same accountability measures as math and reading test scores.
Under the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) of 2011, schools that fail to meet yearly targets in math and reading skills are subject to federal mandates, and teacher evaluations are also tied, in part, to the test scores. Science scores do not have the same strings attached, and Hock said he’s worried that science lessons might be downplayed in school curriculums as a consequence.
“My fear is schools are robbing time from science instruction to focus on math and writing.” And, in the lower grades, that partiality is likely more pronounced. According to Hock, about one third of the minutes spent on instruction in elementary schools are devoted to reading. “I fear science comes third and fourth on the list.”
The average scores, Hock said, mask schools that are excelling. He pointed to Woodstock Elementary School in Windsor County, where 75 percent of fourth-graders had proficient scores.
But then there are schools on the other end of the spectrum. Only 10 percent of fourth-graders at Sheldon Elementary School in Franklin County had proficient scores.
Secretary of Education Armando Vilaseca, in a statement about the science scores, noted that, “Governor Shumlin and I have advocated for raising math and science graduation requirements for some time.”
Shumlin and Vilaseca have pushed to make algebra and geometry mandatory for ninth and 10th-graders and have asked the State Board of Education to “review the need to require physics and chemistry in future years.”
The results can be read on the Agency of Education’s website.