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Science assessments show statewide improvement over six-year span

Review of results confirms accuracy at statewide level

The results of the 2014 statewide science assessments released today (December 16, 2014)  show improvement statewide and in all tested grades since the assessments began six years ago (2008).

Statewide, 32 percent of Rhode Island students attained the level of proficiency or better on the New England Common Assessment Program (NECAP) science assessments administered in May, an increase of 8 percentage points over the past six years. 

In the tested grades, 41 percent of 4th-grade students (up 5 points since 2008), 23 percent of 8th-grade students (up 4 points since 2008), and 30 percent of 11th-grade students (up 14 points since 2008) attained proficiency or better.

“Proficiency in science plays an important role as we prepare Rhode Island students to succeed in the workforce of tomorrow,” said Governor Lincoln D. Chafee. “I am pleased to see this improvement over time in the results of our science assessments. With continued excellent instruction, our students will make progress in future years as well.”

Rhode Island students in grades 4, 8, and 11 took these assessments in May 2014. In September, the R.I. Department of Education (RIDE) received the preliminary results from the testing company, and Education Commissioner Deborah A. Gist shared these results with each school district for local review. On review of the results, Commissioner Gist and several superintendents were concerned about the scores some students received, particularly in grades 4 and 8. To ensure that the results were accurate, Commissioner Gist decided that RIDE would undertake a review of the science assessments and of the scoring process and she decided to hold off on release of the assessment results until RIDE completed this review. 

RIDE has now completed this review and can report that the assessment itself and the scoring process met all technical requirements needed to report results accurately. Those conducting the review did, however, find several items on the assessments for grade 4 and grade 8 that were borderline in meeting these requirements. RIDE is confident that the overall scores and proficiency levels are accurate at the state level, though RIDE urges some caution in use of the grades 4 and 8 results at the individual-student and school levels. (Further information about the review process appears below, at the end of this news release.) 

The statewide results released today show that Rhode Island students continue to narrow the gap between Rhode Island and the other tested NECAP states (New Hampshire and Vermont) in all three grade levels. For the first time, Rhode Island results have matched Vermont results and have surpassed New Hampshire by one point in grade 11.

“The science results we released today show that Rhode Island students have made progress over the past six years and have narrowed the gap between Rhode Island and other New England states in science achievement,” said Eva-Marie Mancuso, Chair of the Board of Education. “We need to continue providing students at all grade levels with a world-class education in science in order to open opportunities in such growing fields as health care and bioengineering.”

“Although I am concerned about the decline in scores this year among students in grade 8, I am pleased to see the long-term improvements our high-school students have made in science achievement,” said Patrick A. Guida, Chair of the Council on Elementary and Secondary Education. “We are committed to providing students with challenging high-school science courses, including advanced-placement courses and dual-enrollment courses that can provide high-school students with college credits.”

Compared with last year’s results, the percent of students attaining proficiency or better was unchanged since 2013 in both grades 4 and 11 and fell by 7 percentage points in grade 8, a decline essentially matched by the other NECAP states: 8th-grade results Vermont declined by 7 points as well, and results in New Hampshire declined by 6 points. 

“The overall six-year gains in science results have been positive, but I do have concerns about the one-year decline in percent proficient in our middle schools,” said Education Commissioner Deborah A. Gist. “We need to be aware that the science assessments have fewer questions and require a shorter testing time than our mathematics or reading assessments. Because there are relatively few questions on the NECAP science assessments, NECAP science scores may vary from year to year. We do not, however, use the science assessment as a promotion or graduation requirement for students, nor for school classifications, nor for educator evaluations.”

Commissioner Gist added: “The primary purpose of the science assessment is to provide educators and families with information that can improve student achievement. With that purpose in mind, we will ask our schools and districts to review their science instruction and curriculum, in light of the 2014 assessment results, to see which content areas may need a sharper focus or more resources and support.”

Many Rhode Island schools and districts have made statistically significant improvements over the past six years, but only two Rhode Island schools made statistically significant gains over both the six-year and the one-year spans: North Kingstown High School and North Smithfield High School. 

Among student groups in Rhode Island, economically disadvantaged students and Hispanic students have narrowed achievement gaps in grade 4 over the past six years. These groups also made statistically significant one-year improvements in grade 11.

Results on the science assessments for English learners and for students with disabilities, however, have either declined or improved only slightly over the past six years. Other student groups (Asian, Black, Native American) have generally improved over time but not at a rapid enough pace to close achievement gaps. 

Rhode Island is in the process of transitioning to a new set of standards for science education, the Next Generation Science Standards. At present, educators across the state are studying these standards and beginning to incorporate these standards into classroom instruction. The Next Generation Science Standards emphasize focusing on broad and cross-cutting scientific principles and on learning through the process of inquiry and experiment. 

RIDE has posted a report on the 2014 science assessments on the RIDE website.

Note on the review of 2014 NECAP science results:

Those conducting the review found several items on the “inquiry task” section of the science assessments for grades 4 and grade 8 that were borderline in meeting the technical requirements needed to report results accurately. These items ask students to design or critique scientific investigations, to analyze data, and to draw conclusions or explanations. (Examples from previous years’ assessments are available here under “practice tests.”)

The review looked at these items, materials used to score the items, and selected student responses. RIDE found that, because of the wording of some items, students may not have been clear about the question and did not provide the required response. This lack of clarity led some students to receive no credit (0 points) on an item even though their response included some accurate scientific information. RIDE concluded, however, that only a small percentage of students who received zero points on one of these test items could have received partial credit (1 point) based on the information that they included in their response.

Overall, the adjusted scores would change student scores for a small percentage of students by 1 point only and would very rarely raise the scoring level – to partially proficient, proficient, or proficient with distinction – for any student. 

Nevertheless, RIDE asks parents and educators to use caution in reviewing scores on the “inquiry task” section of the assessments for grades 4 and 8, and RIDE suggests some caution as well in interpreting school-level results for grades 4 and 8.