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Students measure up on state science test

Sophomores have a new hurdle standing between them and high school graduation: a science proficiency test.

But the good news is that 59 percent of the 31,000 sophomores in Nevada passed the new test when it was given this spring.

The Nevada Board of Education approved a passing score for the science test on Friday, which is correctly answering 36 out of 60 questions on the multiple choice test.

Sophomores from 2007-08 are the first class to be required to pass a science proficiency test. Science joins reading, writing and math as the fourth proficiency test needed for graduation. Students who don’t pass the first time are allowed to take the tests again.

Richard Vineyard, assistant director for curriculum and a K-12 science consultant for the state Department of Education, said he was surprised by the science results. “They were much better than I hoped,” he said.

Compared with the other proficiency tests, science does not appear to be as difficult as math since about 40 percent of first-time test takers pass math, Vineyard said.

But the science test does appear to be harder than reading and writing since 75 percent of first-time test takers pass those tests, he added.

The science test questions were developed by Nevada teachers and then edited by a state contractor, Vineyard said. The test covers a wide range of subjects, everything from physics and biology to basic science skills such as chart-reading and laboratory safety. Sample questions are not yet available.

The test is meant to be an overview. “It’s a general test, not a chemistry or a biology test,” Vineyard said.

Becky Childs, a high school sophomore from Reno who serves as a student representative to the state Board of Education, vouched for the test’s rigor. “I think some of the questions were very difficult,” she said by teleconference because she was with Northern Nevada board members in Carson City. “I have been anxiously awaiting my result.”

Mary Pike, the director of science, health and foreign curriculum for the Clark County School District, denied that it was a dumbed-downed test. “Absolutely not,” Pike said. “It matches the state’s standards explicitly.”

State Board members acknowledged that a fourth proficiency test could take a toll on the state’s graduation rate, which is already worst in the nation at 45 percent according to an analysis by Education Week.

“Of course, it will,” said board member Jan Biggerstaff. “Any time you add something, it will impact graduation.”

But Biggerstaff said she was impressed by the commitment of the state’s science teachers. Fellow board member Anthony Ruggiero said he likes proficiency tests for setting an educational standard.

Keith Rheault, the state superintendent of public instruction, said the state would have been required by the No Child Left Behind Act to create a science proficiency test by 2010 if the Legislature had not already acted.

Board member Sharon Frederick, who also serves on the Nevada Indian Commission, worries that more high-stakes tests will discourage some students and possibly cause them to drop out. “There is test anxiety,” she said.

Contact reporter James Haug at jhaug@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-4686.

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