Science scores up in Austin, still lag state

Published 10:33 am Friday, August 12, 2011

Austin Public School students scored significantly higher on Minnesota Comprehensive Assessment science tests this year, but they still aren’t on par with the state.

Austin’s fifth-graders, eighth-graders and high school students all improved by at least 7 percent on the MCA Science exam in 2011. Of Austin’s students, 41.7 percent of fifth-graders met or exceeded expectations. About 42.4 percent of eighth-graders did the same and 53.8 percent of high-schoolers who took the exam did as well, matching the state average.

“In many ways, this shows us that we’re moving in a positive direction,” said John Alberts, Austin’s educational services director. “We’re hopefully going to start performing on par with the state, if not better.”

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The numbers are welcome news given 33.3 percent of fifth-graders, 35.4 percent of eighth-graders and 40.5 percent of high-schoolers met or exceeded expectations last year.

Austin’s students are still behind many in the state, however. About 46 percent of fifth-graders, 44.4 percent of eighth-graders and 53.8 percent of high-schoolers met or exceeded expectations statewide this year, down from 47.9 percent of eighth-graders and up from 51.8 percent of high-schoolers last year.

Though the data suggests this is positive news, it’s tough to say for certain how accurately MCA test scores show student understanding in the classroom. Tracking MCA scores over the years is difficult, as last year’s fifth-graders are this year’s sixth-graders, making year-to-year comparisons impossible.

Yet in 2008, 40 percent of Austin fifth-graders met or exceeded expectations, which could mean the 42.4 percent of eighth-graders meeting expectations on a tougher test learned science better than in previous years.

In addition, district officials can’t name one initiative or program that was the key to higher test scores, although Alberts believes programs like the University of Minnesota’s Hormel Fellowship Program, where teachers earn their master’s degree in Math and Science, helped. The switch in science curriculum four years ago also could have played a part, though Alberts chalks it up to teachers’ efforts in the classroom.

“We’re obviously pleased that we’re showing that amount of gain,” Alberts said. “This may be an early indicator that we’re seeing some success in some of those endeavors.”

The real test for students comes next year. This year was the last MCA test which measured knowledge under Minnesota’s 2003 science standards. Next year’s MCA will test students according to the state’s 2009 standards, which Alberts said Austin accounted for when it updated its science curriculum four years ago.

Austin students did much better than Mower County as a whole. About 41.3 percent of fifth-graders, 41 percent of eighth-graders, and 53.2 percent of high-schoolers in Mower County met or exceeded expectations.

The science portion of the MCA doesn’t count towards a school or district’s Adequate Yearly Progress, the measure by which Minnesota schools track achievement under the federal No Child Left Behind law. State scores in Math and Reading, which count under AYP, are set for release by the end of September.