Hawai'i schools improve in science test
By Beverly Creamer
Advertiser Education Writer
By Beverly Creamer
A major ramp-up in science teaching and curriculum in Hawai'i's elementary and middle schools has paid off in the latest national assessment that ranks Hawai'i as one of just five states to show improvement in science scores in grades 4 and 8 between 2000 and 2005.
The National Assessment of Education Progress, also known as the "nation's report card," in its latest science report groups Hawai'i with California, Kentucky, South Carolina and Virginia in gaining the most in scores over the past five years.
Despite the gains, Hawai'i still ranked below the national average, and remained low compared to most other states and the U.S. Department of Defense school system.
The average score for Hawai'i's fourth-graders went from 136 in 2000 to 142 in 2005, while the national average rose from 145 to 149. That's out of a total possible score of 300.
Among eighth-graders, Hawai'i's average score declined from 135 in 1996 to 130 in 2000 and then increased to 136 in 2005. Meanwhile the national average stayed steady at 148 in 1996 and 2000 before falling to 147 in 2005.
These latest scores put Hawai'i in 37th place among the 44 states that participated in the test.
NAEP tests nationwide progress in reading and math every two years and science every four or five. The test is considered the best measure of how Hawai'i students compare to the rest of the country, although it does not take into account a state's demographics. Only a sampling of students is tested from each state — 2,800 in Hawai'i.
While state Department of Education officials were pleased by student progress, they also said much more needs to be done.
"It is encouraging to note Hawai'i's forward progress on the NAEP science testing," said Schools Superintendent Patricia Hamamoto in a statement. "At the same time, we recognize that we are faced with a lot of catching up, and we are hopeful that our gains will increase as several science initiatives take effect in the next four years."
Robert Hillier, state coordinator for the National Assessment of Education Progress, said the gains in science scores parallel equivalent gains Hawai'i public schools are seeing in NAEP scores for math and reading.
"At Grade 4 we've been enjoying good gains in math and reading," Hillier said. "The math gains have been the strongest. Our reading gains have been more gradual but the gap with the nation has gone down.
"But for Grade 8 these science gains are better than what we've seen in math and reading."
Robert McClelland, director of the office of Planning and Evaluation for the DOE, praised schools for their progress.
"My suspicion is there's a lot more focused work on science," he said. "Schools see it as a very important subject, and they're really paying attention to it. It's showing that the standards are really taking hold, particularly in the elementary grade."
McClelland said gains were made in both fourth and eighth grades in all fields of science, including physical sciences, earth sciences and life sciences.
"We're very happy to see that we're validating our own perceptions that we're doing something significant with the kids."
Hawai'i school principals also were pleased with the gains, and many spoke of an added emphasis on science in their classrooms in the last few years.
"As a state requirement, now students have two years of science (in middle school), so that's a contributing factor," said Waipahu Intermediate School principal Randell Dunn.
At his school the teachers "loop" with their students — following them for two years — and work as teams to coordinate the curriculum.
"There's consistency, and the students know the expectations," Dunn said. "It helps."
At Pearl City Elementary, which has just been named the only NASA Explorer School in the state, an annual Family Space Science Night was so successful with its hands-on interactive parent/student experiments that the school was encouraged to apply for the prestigious national grant that brings extra funding, equipment and programming over the next three years.
At the same time, principal Susan Hirokane has put resources into hiring three additional science technical teachers who have introduced computer-simulated experiments as well as team robotics, where pupils from multiple grades work together.
"A year ago we didn't have these people, so we're grateful," Hirokane said.
Ma'ili Elementary principal Disa Hauge also has added a science specialist teacher this year who has worked with every grade to integrate science into the curriculum.
"It's brand new for us," Hauge said. "The kids have had a lot of hands-on experience they didn't have a year ago. For instance, in an experiment to understand density, they poured a stream of carbon dioxide gas onto a candle to extinguish it. He created the gas with a simple little chemical reaction. It was so exciting for the kids."
The state as a whole, including educators, policymakers and legislators, have all weighed in over the last few years to heighten the focus on science in the schools, said DOE spokesman Greg Knudsen. These efforts include a refining of Hawai'i's Content and Performance Standards, including science, with benchmarks for each grade; an increase in middle school promotion requirements in science; and an influx of $2 million from the Legislature this year in the supplemental budget to use for new science textbooks and materials.
In the past year the DOE also piloted a science component as part of the annual Hawai'i State Assessment examinations that determine whether schools are making adequate progress under the federal No Child Left Behind Act. In the 2007-08 school year, a science test will be given to all students in grades 5, 7 and 11, along with the reading and math test.
While Hawai'i educators have their own challenges, concern was raised at the national level by the educational advocacy group Education Trust over the performance by secondary school students. While elementary pupils continue to show gains, scores remained flat among high school students, with 46 percent of seniors performing below basic levels and a widening scoring gap between Caucasian and minority students.
"We need to get busy," said Education Trust director Kati Haycock in a statement. "And that starts with ensuring that all students have access to a strong science curriculum and the teachers with the skills and knowledge to teach science well."
This latest national snapshot of how public school students are learning science showed that in 2005, 57 percent of Island fourth-graders were at or above a basic level of understanding of science, compared with 51 percent in 2000. The national rate rose from 61 percent to 66 percent.
Meanwhile, Hawai'i eighth-grade students considered at or above basic understanding went from 42 percent in 1996 to 40 percent in 2000 to 44 percent in 2005, while the national rate began at 60 percent and then fell to 57 percent in both 2000 and 2005.The Associated Press contributed to this report.
Reach Beverly Creamer at firstname.lastname@example.org.