SFPS science proficiency rates plunge as state pushes new standards

Lost in the uproar over New Mexico’s proposal for controversial new science education standards is the question of how students across the state are faring with existing benchmarks.

If the results of the Standards Based Assessments released earlier this month by the state Public Education Department are any indicator, the answer is: not very well.

Statewide, the rate of students who achieved scores in the level of proficiency on the annual science tests dropped to 40 percent in the 2016-17 school year from 42 percent the previous year.

The decline at public schools in Santa Fe was more dramatic, with the rate of student proficiency falling to about 31.7 percent from 37 percent.

Some schools in the district experienced considerable increases in proficiency rates, while others saw surprising slumps, a trend that also occurred the previous year.

“We are still seeing a lot of fluctuations in the test scores from year to year,” Superintendent Veronica García said Friday. “It’s such a mixed bag. It’s going to take some analysis to figure out.”

For example, the rate of fourth-graders with proficiency-level scores at Aspen Community Magnet School plummeted from 40 percent last year to 22 percent this year. Meanwhile, fourth-grade proficiency rates at Kearny Elementary School jumped to 38.7 percent this year from 17.6 percent last year.

Students in fourth, seventh and 11th grade take the statewide science tests every year.

One problem, said García and other educators familiar with the Santa Fe district’s science programs, is that New Mexico’s Standards Based Assessments do not fully align with the state’s current science standards, which date back to 2003.

Teachers in the state have designed their curriculum around those roughly 400 scientific principles and benchmarks, which are designed to cover nearly every aspect of science — from one-celled organisms to entire ecosystems, from laws of motion to electromagnetism, from atoms to astrophysics.

Gwen Warniment, who oversees the K-12 science inquiry program run by the Los Alamos National Laboratory Foundation in 44 schools spanning eight districts, including Santa Fe’s, said part of the problem is that students accustomed to mixing chemicals or testing force and motion by using balls and ramps suddenly find themselves facing a multiple-choice question about those procedures.

“There is a disconnect between how kids are experiencing science in the classroom and this assessment asking them to display what they know about science,” she said.

That is one reason why science test scores have remained relatively flat, sometimes climbing slightly or dipping a few points, for both the state and the school district over the past five years, said Warniment, who has taught science in Santa Fe Public Schools. Between the 2011-12 school year and the 2015-16 school year, for instance, seventh-grade science scores have hovered between about 37 percent and nearly 45 percent.

Adding to the challenge for the state’s 11th-graders is that they are being tested on topics like biology and chemistry that they have not studied in two or even three years, said Chari Kauffman, the math and science coordinator for Santa Fe Public Schools.

Capital High School 11th-graders scored abysmally on the state science test, with just 15.4 percent showing proficiency in the 2016-17 school year. The year before, that figure was 22.8 percent. Santa Fe High School juniors did somewhat better, inching from a proficiency rate of 31.5 percent in 2015-16 to 31.7 percent last school year.

In October, after the release of the 2015-16 science scores, García called for a science task force to begin examining why some schools in the Santa Fe district were performing well and others were not. Kauffman said that group is still studying “where the gaps are, and we are working on implementing certain protocols and getting more professional development for teachers at the secondary [high school] level.”

Though the proposed new science standards for the next school year encourage critical thinking skills, experimental projects, and the creation of models and computer systems to solve scientific problems, critics say they also downplay important scientific concepts such as evolution and humans’ impact on climate and the environment.

Warniment said that if the proposed measures are adopted, the state likely will have to come up with a new test to measure student knowledge of those lessons, one that is better aligned with the standards.

Asked whether teachers could be placing less emphasis on science education in the classroom as they put more pressure on students to master math and language skills in preparation for the state’s more high-profile PARCC exams — standardized annual tests developed and administered by the national nonprofit Partnership for Assessment of Readiness of College and Careers — Warniment said it’s possible, but she has seen no real evidence of that.

“There’s a million reasons why we are not scoring the way we are,” she said. “And that’s the crux of the issue: There’s a million reasons.”

Contact Robert Nott at 505-986-3021 or rnott@sfnewmexican.com.

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