By Bob Skolnik
Local school districts are looking to adapt their science curriculums to the new Next Generation Science Standards, which might partially explain the difference in performance by area students on the new state science exam.
The state science exam was first given in 2016 but those scores, and scores for the 2017 test, were only released this year.
Brookfield-LaGrange Park District 95 was the standout performer on the science test in 2017, scoring not too far behind some of the best districts in the state. Some 85 percent of eighth-graders at S.E. Gross Middle School were scored as "proficient" on the 2017 test.
At L.J. Hauser Junior High School, 75.6 percent of eighth-graders were proficient, while at Komarek School in North Riverside 70.5 percent were.
Statewide 59 percent of eighth-graders were considered proficient in science in 2017.
The federally mandated state science test is given to fifth- and eighth-graders as well as students taking biology in high school. Students are scored as either proficient or not proficient.
District 95's fifth-graders also outperformed their counterparts in 2017, with 81 percent scoring as proficient, compared to 72 percent of fifth-graders in Riverside Elementary School District 96 and 63 percent at Komarek.
At Congress Park Elementary School 65.5 percent of students were classified as proficient in science, while just 36.2 percent at Lincoln School met the proficiency standard.
Statewide 54 percent of fifth-graders were considered proficient in science according to the 2017 test.
District 95 began transforming its science curriculum almost four years ago in the 2014-15 school year to better match the new science standards, which emphasize analysis and critical thinking rather than memorization.
The district fully implemented a new curriculum known as STEMscopes last year at Gross Middle School and in grades three through five at Brook Park.
"We were in a place with our science that was very textbook driven and the shift was going back to lots of hands-on labs, lots of student discovery, lots of exploration," said Cathy Cannon, the director of teaching and learning for District 95.
With the help of the new curriculum, teachers emphasized experimentation and student-led learning. Teachers were given training in the new approach and bought in.
"The program is important, but not as important as the teachers and instruction," Cannon said. "You have to dive in and unpack those standards."
Teachers and students are still getting used to the new approach.
District 96 got a later start in revamping its science curriculum, with a committee looking deeply at the new standards. This year a new science curriculum is in use at Hauser, and next year science instruction in the elementary schools will be revamped.
Considering that the students tested in 2016 and 2017 had not had the benefit on the new science curriculum, District 96's assistant superintendent of curriculum and instruction, Merryl Brownlow, said that she was pretty satisfied with the results that District 96 students achieved on the science test.
"We've only fully aligned to the new standards at the middle school level and we still performed well above the state," Brownlow said.
In 2017, fifth-graders at Ames and Blythe Park Schools scored better than the counterparts at Central and Hollywood in District 96.
Eighty percent of fifth-graders at Ames and 79.7 at Blythe Park percent scored at the proficient level, compared to just 66.7 percent at Hollywood and 65.2 percent at Central.
Brownlow said that could be because there was more piloting of new science curriculum at Ames and Blythe Park than at Central and Hollywood.
It could also just be random variation in the abilities of the fifth-graders at the different schools, because a year earlier the scores were quite different.
In the 2016 science test 91.3 percent of the fifth-graders at Hollywood School were classified as proficient as were 84.3 percent at Central School.
Science instruction at Komarek has yet to undergo major changes. In his first three years at Komarek, Superintendent Brian Ganan has focused on revamping the school's curriculum in English/Language Arts. Next on tap is math and then science.
Ganan said because the science test is so new, it's of limited use to school administrators.
"I think our results were pretty good," Ganan said. "We would always like to see results higher, but there's no real baseline to compare it to."
Scores among high school students were lower.
High school students taking biology, usually freshmen, were tested. At Riverside-Brookfield High School in 2017 just 52.3 percent were classified as proficient. At Lyons Township High School, 61.6 percent were considered proficient.