The Free Press, Mankato, MN

November 5, 2012

Our View: Low science scores cause for concern

— Everywhere one turns, it seems, there is another study or report on the importance of science education and its connection to worker skills for jobs of the  future.

So a recent report on a new science test in Minnesota that showed several area school districts with more than half the students not proficient in science is cause for concern. National tests reflect the same levels or even lower in some cases. The lastest scores from the National Assessment of Educational Progress science tests shows only 29 percent of eighth-graders nationwide are proficient.

There are some caveats, of course, all legitimate: It’s a new test, and many schools may not have developed a curriculum that addresses the test. Results for just one year of measurement can also be skewed.

One superintendent noted the science test may have been  more difficult because it was also a “reading testing” and may have been difficult for those with lower reading skills. Another noted there was no online practice test like there is for reading and math.

Still, one would expect a higher percentage of students in fifth, eighth and high school grades to be proficient. Parents should ask questions about a school with scores under 50 percent, or for that matter, under 70 percent.

Various school officials have noted they are considering adjusting their curriculum to be more geared toward subject matter measured by the test. They note they are directing lots of resources to improving test scores. All vow to modify their curriculum to more closely match state standards.

There certainly is an element of accountability given the low scores. The state and taxpayers rightly would like to see a return on their multi-billion investment in Minnesota education. But schools also shouldn’t use one test to measure the level of science education. Other tests that measure how students can apply science concepts to the real world also would be beneficial. And states shouldn’t be so obsessed with test scores that they leave no resources for anything else.

School leaders should be careful to avoid creating curriculum solely to making sure students have acceptable test scores and leaving by the wayside the ideas of problem solving and critical thinking. Tests should be benchmarks toward measuring basic student knowledge, and schools should go beyond that to provide programs where students can apply the knowledge.

In the end, employers will reward employees who can apply science knowledge and skills and may not look much at employee test scores.