New science test scores show improvement

GEMS program participants
Students in the GEMS (Girls in Engineering, Mathematics and Science) program at Augsburg College try to maneuver a robot they built to lift up items off a table. The program lasts a month and is intended for girls in 4-8th grade.
MPR Photo/Tom Weber

Scores for state science tests were better this year than last year, although more than half of the students who took the exam still scored below grade-level expectations.

The tests were part of the MCA-II that students took earlier this spring. But unlike math, reading and writing -- the science test doesn't actually count towards anything.

But state officials say the results are still just as important.

More than 181,600 students in grades five, eight and high school took the science test. It's taken entirely on computers -- none of that fill in the bubble stuff -- and just about every result show higher scores.

Forty-five percent of fifth-graders are proficient in science, 43 percent for eighth-graders and proficiency among high school students was 50 percent.

Compare that to last year - and the numbers are all up. Both fifth and eighth-graders were 39 percent proficient last year, and high school students were 43 percent.

Deputy Education Commissioner Chas Anderson said the department is pleased with higher scores, but fewer than half of all students had a proficient score.

Brad Blue
Brad Blue is a Minneapolis math and science teacher who coordinates a number of summer programs at Augsburg College, including GEMS (Girls in Engineering, Mathematics and Science); GISE (Guys in Science and Engineering); and SciFY (Science for Youth)
MPR Photo/Tom Weber

"We're not pleased with the overall results this year, either," Anderson said. "We think the results are low, but keep in mind, too, we set a very high cut score and benchmark for our science test.

"It is a high benchmark for students to meet, but we think that all students can meet that benchmark. That's why we want to have high expectations, so that our students will be fully proficient in science when they graduate from high school."

The results also provide another example of what's known as "the racial achievement gap." That's the difference between how well white students do, compared to students of color. And on this test, it's a big gap.

In fifth grade, for example, 53 percent of white students were proficient in science, but only 16 percent of black students were; that's less than half. The bright spot there is that at least that 16 percent was higher than how black students did last year, which was 13 percent. In fact, students in every ethnic subgroup - Asian, Hispanic, and American Indian - improved over their group's scores last year.

No student, though, will lose a diploma and no school will be labeled a failure because of these scores. That's because this MCA science test doesn't count - it's purely informational. But that doesn't make it any less serious for Marlene Schoeneck, who teaches science at Parkers Prairie High School in west-central Minnesota.

"We're not pleased with the overall results this year, either."

"It is a reflection of your school and most people look at it as a reflection of the quality of your teaching," Schoeneck said. "Whether or not that's completely true is kind of another thing, but the way people perceive them is as if they do count."

And since the state emphasizes academic testing in so many areas, education officials expect the scores on this science test will continue to improve.

Minnesota's first-ever set of science standards for schools was updated this year, and a number of efforts aim to improve science education, like a summer program at Augsburg College in Minneapolis.

That's where you'll find a room full of girls, like Daynesha Ewing, 11, building robots with Legos this summer.

"It was okay - it wasn't the best of the best - but it was alright," Ewing said of her robot.

While that happened, another class of all boys was painting wooden cars for this week's big race, a kind-of Cub Scout Pinewood Derby, but with cars packed with CO-2 cartridges that will launch them at 50 miles an hour.

These 200 or so students from Minneapolis and St. Paul are part of programs including GEMS (Girls in Engineering, Mathematics, and Science); GISE (Guys in Science and Engineering) and SciFY (Science For Youth), which are all coordinated by Minneapolis teacher Brad Blue.

"It's easier to have a carrot than it is a stick," Blue said. "So if you say 'we're going to have a pinewood derby on steroids, these things are going to go 50 miles an hour but first we're going to the wind tunnel and collect data, what do you think?' They're all over it. Because they see the real-time, cumulative event and they're drawn to it."

Blue said his students almost always improve their science and math scores after these programs, which might prove even more crucial in the future.

Even though the MCA science test doesn't count for anything now, it could. The state education department said it hopes to convince lawmakers to raise the test's stakes. That could include requiring students to pass the test at the end of the year before moving on. Or it could include adding science to the formula that determines which schools are "failing."

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