Newspaper article The Florida Times Union

This Year, It's Science That's in; an FCAT Grading Shift Casts Light on Inequality in Educational Facilities

Newspaper article The Florida Times Union

This Year, It's Science That's in; an FCAT Grading Shift Casts Light on Inequality in Educational Facilities

Article excerpt

Byline: DEIRDRE CONNER

Nearly all of Northeast Florida's school districts are focusing on science this year, making plans to revamp curriculum and upgrade lab facilities.

It's no coincidence. For the first time, student scores on the science portion of the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test will count toward state-issued school grades handed down in the late spring.

All the attention is casting light on the inequalities among lab facilities - and highlighting why experts are so concerned about science education.

Because of the intense focus on math and reading, the two main subjects on the FCAT, some elementary-age children received no science instruction at all, something no longer possible as principals face scrutiny in all three subjects.

But at middle and high schools, labs were getting squeezed long before the FCAT was introduced.

The cost to build and maintain facilities and school overcrowding has slowly eroded laboratory availability at many schools, especially older ones such as Fletcher High School.

At Fletcher, 1,500 teenagers once shared five lab rooms. These days the school's 2,600 students share two labs with two functioning Bunsen burners, leading outraged parents this spring to demand a meeting with Superintendent Joseph Wise and School Board members.

Cindy Anderson, a parent lobbying for better equipment at Fletcher, specifically a chemistry lab with a working sink, said despite great teachers none of her three children showed much interest in science.

"I attribute it to lack of opportunity to experience the thrill of applying book knowledge to the real world," she told the assembly of parents and district officials.

Anderson said she steamed as she watched magnet schools and new schools get millions for new science facilities.

Students who go to college with lab experience have a big leg up, some college science professors said.

Dale Casamatta, an assistant professor who teaches introductory biology at the University of North Florida, said instructors have trouble structuring beginning biology courses because some students are so ill-prepared for hands-on scientific inquiry.

Half of his first-year students have never used a microscope, Casamatta estimated, and only about 10 percent of his biology students come in with a working knowledge of chemistry.

"They seem to see science as memorization of facts," Casamatta said.

Doing lab work and research gets students engaged with science, he said, and something kids should do before college.

That's because the laboratory is where most of the learning happens, said Mark Lewis, who coordinates science for St. Johns County schools.

"The teaching of science is a messy process, in a way. When I first started teaching ... I wouldn't let them do the lab until they got a passing grade in the book test. …

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