Recently released science test scores from the New England Common Assessment Program (NECAP) show that while scores at the elementary level took a slight dip, dropping by two points, Warwick improved at the secondary level over last year.
The NECAP assessments were developed in partnership with the Departments of Education in Rhode Island, New Hampshire and Vermont. They were first introduced in Rhode Island three years ago. The assessments consist of multiple-choice, constructed-response and inquiry task questions on earth and space, physical science and life sciences. The tests are administered to grades 4, 8 and 11.
Superintendent Peter Horoschak said the NECAP science assessments give a reading on how well the district’s science program is progressing in terms of preparing students for this type of test.
“We’re making changes to our science instruction,” he said during a phone interview last week.
Horoschak said, two years ago, the district started using specialists to assist the classroom teacher with science instruction in the elementary schools.
“The instruction is shared between the teacher and the science specialist,” he said. “The specialists meet once a week in the schools. They travel between the schools.”
Horoschak said he’s not aware of other districts using specialists but said they’ve been valuable in Warwick.
“They play an important role and work together to ensure there’s consistency across the schools,” he said. “The transition has been a [significant] change and we try to provide them with supports to get more information as needed to assist with picking up these responsibilities. We anticipate more progress at the elementary level.”
Horoschak said specialists are teachers that focus on science who will work with classroom teachers.
“The idea is to have the best of both worlds, with a classroom teacher supported by elementary teachers specifically [focused] in the science curriculum to enhance what students are getting,” he said. “It’s a good mix of teachers’ focus and time.”
Horoschak said schools need to focus on science because it sometimes gets lost in the shuffle.
“So much attention is given to ELA [English language arts] and math, sometimes at the expense of other areas,” he said. “It’s a matter of teachers being well-balanced and prepared to reach across all subject areas.”
Horoschak said having students look at the scientific method and ask the right kind of questions to prove a theory true or false is crucial, versus just learning scientific facts.
“We need more analysis,” he said. “The plan is to have instruction build on itself and to consistently look at how [science] is related to other subjects. The specialist looks at specific aspects of the curriculum and determines how to deliver instruction across the district, such as inquiry, which must be taught well and consistently to all students.”
When asked what led to the improved secondary scores, Ron Poirier, supervisor of math and science for the schools, said the schools have been pushing inquiry as well as the GSEs (grade span expectations) in science for a few years now.
“We’ve done a lot of work writing common assessments as well as identifying what we call ‘Essential Expectations,’ which are the expectations that our teachers consider the most important to get across to kids,” he wrote in an e-mail to the Beacon.
Even with improvement, scores are still below the state average, but the eighth grade level steadily improved over the years and Poirier said there are many reasons for this.
“The reasons are not the same across grade levels,” he wrote. “For example, it is difficult to motivate 11th graders to do well since the test doesn’t count for anything, as in graduation or grades. The fourth grade is a different kettle of fish.”
Poirier said schools need to change the way science is taught in elementary schools.
“Our original model was fine, in fact exemplary, for the time in which it was created. We have the advantage of having science specialists whose job it has been to get the students a ‘hands-on’ science learning experience across the three content area strands,” he wrote.
Poirier said elementary students used to have more time learning science, but that’s no longer the case. Kindergarten through 3rd grade students get 45 minutes a week of science instruction, which translates to nine minutes a day compared to 60 minutes a day elsewhere, he wrote.
“My proposal is that we give the students an hour of science a day,” he wrote. “Classroom teachers would teach four of those days in the content areas. The specialists would focus on a true inquiry that would support the classroom teachers’ work. Since each school has a science laboratory, the physical space is there already.”
Poirier said a lot of work needs to be done in designing a curriculum that would support that in the daily schedule. Resources need to be located and purchased; teachers would need professional development to use those resources; and specialists need to get training in the use of inquiry as a teaching and learning strategy.
“Right now there aren’t enough minutes in the day to make this happen,” he wrote.
Poirier said this is a major project that needs a lot of work across the district to accomplish. He said it would be a few years before there would be “significant impact” on test scores.
“There is a four-year gap between the time a first grader is first exposed to science and when the test is administered at the end of the fourth grade,” he wrote. “If we put the same intensity of effort in strengthening the science curriculum as math and English there would still be lag but would also be similar improvements.
“I would expect that as science grows in priority, we will see improvement in that subject area as well,” he wrote. “Nothing would please me more than to be able to see that process begin in Warwick.”
As for the actual results, of the district’s 16 elementary schools six showed improvement, including Robertson, Francis, Scott, Wickes, Holden and Warwick Neck. Robertson, Scott and Holden saw the most improvement, increasing scores by at least 22 points.
At the secondary level, all three junior highs improved, for an overall increase of 1.5 points, and both Pilgrim and Toll Gate improved by 4.5 and 3.3 points, respectively, while Vets virtually stayed the same, dropping only one-tenth of a point, for an overall increase of 2.8 points over last year.
For a complete report on the 2011 NECAP science scores, visit the RIDE website at www.ride.ri.gov/assessment/results.aspx.