Portsmouth NECAP science scores down from last year

PORTSMOUTH — The latest round of New England Common Assessment Program (NECAP) science scores released Monday presented a case of good news/bad news for the Portsmouth school district.

NECAP-Logo-Color-Sm-100First the good: From 2008 (when the tests were instituted) to 2013, students have increased their overall proficiency on NECAP science testing by 12.6 percent.

Now the bad: The district’s overall spring 2013 science scores were 7.7 percent lower than in 2012, which is considered to be a statistically significant decrease.

Overall, about 51 percent of the students who took the test this spring were deemed to be proficient or better in science. (Statewide, only 34 percent of Rhode Island students tested this year were considered to be at least proficient in science.)

The NECAP science scores were released Monday by the Rhode Island Department of Education (RIDE).

The biggest reduction in Portsmouth’s science scores from the previous year was seen with the fourth-graders at the middle school. The percentage of students deemed “proficient” in science was 16.1 points lower in 2013 than in 2012 (55 percent this year, 71.1 percent in 2012).

The high school also saw lower test scores in 2013 compared to 2012 — 50.7 versus 58 percent, or a 7.3 percent decrease — but that drop was not deemed to be statistically significant.

Grade 8 students made a slight improvement over last year, with 49.8 percent of pupils deemed proficient in science, compared to 49 percent last year.

Jeffrey Schoonover, assistant superintendent, said the NECAP science results were disappointing, but he’s putting the scores in perspective.

Last year, PHS was the fifth-ranked high school in the state, he said. Three of the schools that scored higher than Portsmouth — Barrington, Narragansett and Scituate — all showed a substantial decrease in their science scores this year, Mr. Schoonover said. (The other school, East Greenwich, performed better on the test this year, he said.)

“We’re not happy with (the scores), but that tells me it’s not problematic just in Portsmouth,” he said.

Mr. Schoonover said he’s examined the results and found that both fourth- and 11th-grade students “tripped up” on a similar problem on the test.

“There are three sessions; the first two are content-based, multiple choice and some longer responses, and the third session is called an inquiry task,” he said. “It requires some text that kids have to read to establish the problem. The fourth grade has to do a hands-on activity. This year they had to do a model simulating the pollination of flowers.”

It was a difficult and involved problem, he said.

“It’s something that incorporates skills from multiple areas, not just science, and sometimes that leads to confusion,” said Mr. Schoonover, who noted that if students had trouble with the math skills, they’d also likely struggle with other parts of the task. “It was the one area on both tests that caused the decreases in numbers.”

Switch to PARCC

The NECAP tests are designed to measure student performance on grade level expectations and grade span expectations in reading, writing, math and science. The science tests are administered to students in grades 4, 8 and 11, while grades 3-8 and 11 receive the reading and mathematics tests. The writing exam is given to students in grades 5, 8 and 11.

NECAP exams for math, reading and writing will be phased out starting in 2015 when Rhode Island public schools switch to a different platform: the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC). The NECAP assessments for science will remain, however.

“I believe the current contract is through 2017,” said Mr. Schoonover, adding that science testing probably won’t switch to PARCC, “but something similar.”

He said he’s looking forward to when the district uses the PARCC exams, which will be implemented by roughly 20 states nationwide, allowing state-by-state comparisons.

“It will be more of an apples-to-apples comparison now across the country,” said Mr. Schoonover.

Supporters say the PARCC program promises to do a better job of measuring student performance through technology-enhanced test items, and that the exams more closely reflect the content that students are learning in class. In addition, PARCC exams are administered closer to the end of the school year, when students are better prepared, supporters say.

NECAP testing in reading, math and writing takes place in October, which Mr. Schoonover said disrupts the school year. “You’re breaking instruction to give a test to find out what they learned from the previous year,” he said.

When the PARCC exams begin in 2015 they’ll be given in two rounds, first in March and then in May.

“The goal is to have all of the results at the end of school year,” he said.

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