East Valley schools are teaching science better than many schools in Arizona, according to the science AIMS test results released today by the state Department of Education.
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Statewide about 50 percent of students in fourth and eighth grades passed and about 38 percent of the high school students passed Arizona's first science AIMS test.
In Gilbert, Scottsdale, Kyrene and Chandler school districts, more than 60 percent of the fourth- and eighth-graders passed. East Valley high school students were well above the state average, with passing rates above 47 percent in Queen Creek, Higley, Mesa, Gilbert, Scottsdale and Chandler districts.
Scottsdale's high school students performed better than those in most other East Valley districts, with 60 percent passing the exam. Chaparral High School students outdid their peers, with 71 percent passing the exam, and Desert Mountain High School was not far behind, with 65 percent passing.
Desert Mountain teacher Cher Fesenmaier, a seven-year biology instructor in the Scottsdale district, said students are not only exposed to a range of science - from ecology to cell structures to genetics - but are tested on it regularly. The district uses a computer-based testing program to see if students understand concepts presented, or if a teacher needs to repeat a lesson before moving on.
"We were doing it with our math and our English, which has also helped our test scores," Fesenmaier said. "Knowing AIMS science was coming around the bend for us ... we decided to take a proactive approach and create a benchmark testing program."
Queen Creek Unified School district's students in lower grades also performed well compared to other school districts, with 74 percent of the fourth-graders passing the exam.
"The teachers have worked very hard to get a better understanding of what the standards are and have created lessons on their own to make sure they are challenging the students above and beyond what the minimum standards are," the district's assistant superintendent, Tom Lindsey, said.
The low numbers of passing scores statewide were expected, said state Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Horne.
"We knew exactly what it was going to be because the passing scores were set after the students had taken the test," Horne said. "When it was passed by the state board we knew we would only have about 38 percent of high school students and 50 percent of elementary students passing. It sent a signal that the kids need to be learning more science."
Science is the latest addition to Arizona's Instrument to Measure Standards. The state is required by federal law to set high educational standards in a variety of subjects and then use a test such as AIMS to see that students are making progress.
AIMS has included reading, writing and math for several years; science was added last spring. Requirements for science course credits are increasing too: This year's incoming freshmen are required to have an additional year of science - a total of three years - to graduate.
But the AIMS science test is not a graduation requirement, Horne said.
Students in district schools and charter schools in fourth, eighth and 10th grades are required to take the test. Students who are enrolled in a life sciences course in ninth grade may choose to take the test then, rather than wait for 10th grade. Unlike reading, writing and math, high school students only take the science test once; they have five opportunities to pass the other part of AIMS in order to graduate.
Charter high schools in general did not do as well as their peers around the state. The Arizona Charter School Association's calculations indicate only 20 percent of high school students in charter schools passed the science exam.
Fourth- and eighth-graders in charter schools performed better, with results for several East Valley charter schools standing out.
At Great Hearts Academy-Chandler Prep, one in a family of charter schools that focus on honors courses and classic literature, 99 percent of last year's eighth-graders passed the test. There were 79 students who took the exam.
"We were reflecting on the fact that we have a really coherent science curriculum," said Dan Scoggin, CEO of Great Hearts Academies. "We have the students go in-depth in life science in seventh grade and in-depth in earth science in eighth grade. I think those specified content courses push us to go further. They're sort of high school courses built for junior high kids."
The students at Chandler Prep won the Arizona Science Bowl two years ago and placed third last year.
"I think there really is a science culture that has blossomed at Chandler Prep," Scoggin said.
The 21 fourth-graders at Gilbert's Challenger Basic charter school also did well, due in part to the addition of new science kits for hands-on learning, co-owner and co-director Deanne Tobin said. The school saw 91 percent of its fourth-graders pass last spring's science test.
Students at Gilbert's Edu-Prize charter school also did well, with 92 percent of the 147 fourth-graders passing the exam.
"We have strong integration between classroom teachers and specialists to maximize learning," said science specialist Jennie Boll.
Starting in kindergarten, Edu-Prize students are exposed to science through hands-on experiments, a science lab and a tech lab by applying what they learn to create PowerPoints and multimedia presentations, Boll said.