Is science education important to Florida? That is a relevant question after analyzing the 2009 science FCAT results. There were minimal gains of 1 or 2 percent in the lower grades, but a disappointing 63 percent of 11th graders failed the test by scoring below a level three. There are bright spots in a few counties, but overall we are either mired in an inadequate testing system for science, or our students have a shockingly poor understanding of basic science concepts. Quite likely, both.
The science FCAT was established with good intentions. When the subject is on the FCAT schedule, schools must invest time and resources into teaching it or be penalized with poor school grades. Unfortunately, the science FCAT is saddled with difficulties that other FCAT subjects aren't. The No. 1 deficiency is that failing the science test holds no sway over students' promotion or graduation, but those same failures can drag a school's grade down. This leaves schools scrambling to find ways to motivate students to take the test seriously and to even show up for it. Many schools resort to blatant bribery just to get kids into seats on test day.
Another 11th-grade science FCAT problem is that it covers multiple science disciplines. If a student took an earth science course in ninth grade, what are the chances testable details will be remembered two years later? Florida Citizens for Science has heard from science teachers who say they've been forced to interrupt their own courses to spend time reviewing other science subjects in preparation for the FCAT. State legislators attempted to address this problem through a bill that would have eliminated the 11th-grade science FCAT and possibly replaced it with some end-of-course tests. The bill failed to gain enough support and died.
Yet another concern relates to the very nature of the test: Students have to read and comprehend. As a result, this becomes just as much a reading comprehension test as it does a science exam. Struggling readers are going to fumble the FCAT regardless of science competence. And students who have fun looking through microscopes and telescopes don't get to demonstrate that interest filling in bubbles on an answer sheet.
Do the above listed test problems absolve Florida of science education woes? No, there are other assessments to examine. For instance, a report called "Taking the Pulse of Bioscience Education in America: A State by State Analysis" was issued this year. Florida was listed in the bottom category: lagging, which is a euphemism for failure. The National Assessment of Educational Progress, commonly referred to as the Nation's Report Card, looked at science proficiency across the country in 2005. Florida's eighth-graders didn't do well, with 49 percent scoring below the basic science comprehension level. The next science report card from NAEP is expected in the spring of 2010.
Science and technology are the big career fields of today and tomorrow. Our state's leaders have been working hard to grow the biotech industry here, but Florida's future work force needs a sound science education to compete for these jobs. However, Florida' budget woes will strangle the life out of the very future so many people are pinning their hopes on. We must pressure our political leaders from the local level to Tallahassee to find ways to properly fund science education, including recruiting and retaining qualified science teachers and giving them needed training and support.
There is hope, though. Florida has a strong set of new state science standards. There are leaders rising up, both in politics and the education system itself, who are bringing attention to problems with the science FCAT and science education in general. And we have great science teachers, science supervisors, and concerned citizens all working together to strengthen Florida's science education.
Brandon Haught is the communications director for Florida Citizens for Science. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Florida Citizens for Science is a statewide organization consisting of parents, educators, scientists and others who support and promote sound science education.