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In science, Florida students are average at best

Leah Foe, 12, reads from her science book during her seventh-grade life science class at Tyrone Middle School on Tuesday. Education experts are calling for more focus on the subject.

KATHLEEN FLYNN | Times

Leah Foe, 12, reads from her science book during her seventh-grade life science class at Tyrone Middle School on Tuesday. Education experts are calling for more focus on the subject.

Reading? Better. Math? Better.

Science? Well …

Florida students are making strides in reading and math, but the latest national test results show they continue to struggle with basic science — and are at best so-so compared with their peers across the country.

The results sparked calls for a bigger spotlight on science education in Florida and its ties to jobs, jobs, jobs.

The scores are "just not good enough for Florida," said Steven Birnholz, vice president for research at the Florida Council of 100, a group of influential business leaders. "The world is moving on, and we have a choice: We can either jump aboard the STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) train and get to the top of the scores … or stay where we are and hope that's enough."

The state's top education official didn't sugarcoat his reaction.

"We simply have to get better at this," said Education Commissioner Eric J. Smith, stepping away from a legislative committee meeting in Tallahassee.

Thirty-one percent of Florida fourth-graders are proficient in science, according to results released Tuesday from the 2009 National Assessment of Educational Progress, often called "the nation's report card." That puts them at No. 31 among the 46 states that participated.

Meanwhile, 23 percent of Florida's eighth-graders reached that bar, putting them at No. 36.

The test measured how well students grasp biology, chemistry, physics and other scientific fields. It was given to a statistically representative sample of students in grades 4, 8 and 12.

The 12th-grade results showed 21 percent of students nationally scored at proficient or above, but there was no state-by-state breakdown for that grade.

Because the latest test was redesigned, federal officials who administer it said it cannot be compared with past tests. But this isn't the first time Florida kids have been stumped by gravity and subatomic particles. They ranked about the same in the last testing, in 2005.

This time, though, the reaction was stronger.

Blame — or credit — rising expectations for Florida's public schools. A lingering recession that has again exposed Florida's economic weaknesses. And a fresh wave of fear about the nation's global standing.

Earlier this month, Education Week put Florida at No. 5 in its annual ranking of state education systems, with gains in math and reading moving a state that has long scraped the bottom of the academic barrel. Meanwhile, the state's unemployment rate stands at 12 percent.

"We're bringing in all these fancy biotech companies, and we're importing these scientists and we're training our students to make the beds for them," said Paul Cottle, a Florida State University physicist who writes a blog on science education.

Business groups seconded that notion.

"The state needs to redouble its effort to really launch Florida into the upper echelon," Birnholz said. A 2009 report the council put out with the Florida Chamber of Commerce said that within five years, Florida will need at least 100,000 more science and technology professionals than it is on track to produce.

Even state scores that are above average may not be good enough, many science advocates say. They point to international tests that suggest American students are losing ground in science to their peers elsewhere on the planet, trailing Canada, Germany and Japan, among others.

"I'm afraid these scores show our system … is just not producing science students that have what is necessary to keep the country competitive," said Joe Wolfe, president of Florida Citizens for Science and a mathematician by training.

In Florida, some critics said progress is a matter of will and focus.

In 2001, former Gov. Jeb Bush launched Just Read, Florida!, which channeled attention and money into a massive effort to boost the state's reading scores. The Department of Education hung a giant reading banner from the side of the Turlington Building in Tallahassee. Districts hired hundreds of reading coaches. New laws mandated extra reading instruction for struggling students.

The result? It's not clear which factors made the most difference. But Florida's reading scores are now among the fastest-rising in the country.

By contrast, the state's efforts to improve science education have been "spasmodic," Wolfe said.

In 2007, Florida State University and the University of Florida teamed up on a $10 million plan to better recruit math and science teachers, where there have been critical shortages for years. In 2008, the state Board of Education adopted new science standards that included the teaching of evolution. In 2010, the Legislature passed new graduation requirements, including tougher classes in math and science.

Those changes are technical but substantial, and pave the way for bigger gains, said Smith, a former science teacher. But he did not disagree with those calling for more and said the effort "needs to be more than the technical work going on."

"I don't see in the future, at least today, a new banner at the top of the Turlington Building. But I would not stand in the way of that," he said. "I think in part this kind of report from NAEP is what can get that kind of momentum going."

Ron Matus can be reached at matus@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8873.

.Fast facts

Science scores

FOURTH GRADE

BasicProficient

Florida 43%31%

Nation 39% 32%

EIGHTH GRADE

BasicProficient

Florida 33% 23%

Nation 33% 28%

To see all the latest NAEP science results, go to nces.ed.gov/nationsreportcard.

In science, Florida students are average at best 01/25/11 [Last modified: Tuesday, January 25, 2011 11:19pm]

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