Byline: Cynthia L. Garza, Times-Union staff writer
The old-school way of teaching science, often marked by dry texts and multisyllabic words and processes, is starting to find itself replaced by a more hands-on approach that stresses everyday applications.
The new approach will be crucial, some teachers say, if students are to meet expectations that could come soon as part of the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test.
Starting in March, Florida students in grades five, eight and 10 will take tests to determine their knowledge of science. The tests are part of FCAT, which since its start in 1998 has focused mainly on reading, math and writing.
That has some Duval County teachers worried, because it has meant science has not been emphasized.
"I think the emphasis on reading and math is going to show that across the county there's a large gap in the sciences," said Diane Landschoot, a fifth-grade science teacher at John Stockton Elementary School. Her school was among those that took a pilot FCAT science exam last year, but the state did not say how the students performed on the field test.
"We had no idea what was going to be on the exam," said Landschoot, a 24-year teaching veteran who has worked at Stockton Elementary for 15 years. "We knew the topics, but not how they were going to be tested."
Scores from the March round of testing will be reported on the same 100 to 500 scale used for reading and math but will not carry as heavy a weight. Scores on the established tests help determine grades for public schools, how reward money will be divided among school districts and whether some students are promoted.
Cornelia Orr, administrator for assessment and school performance at the Florida Department of Education, said it usually takes one to two years to set a baseline of achievement for an exam. The baseline is what the state sets as a minimum score students must earn to show they have a basic understanding of the material.
While student performance on this year's science test will not immediately affect the state's formula for rating schools with an A through F grade, it may become part of that equation in the future.
Some educators see the science exam as a natural progression of state testing because the science portion has a strong foundation in reading and math.
But few deny its comprehensive approach is something for which many students are now being prepared.
There is an emphasis on reading texts with science vocabulary, said Ruth Senftleber, supervisor of science for Duval County public schools. The test also incorporates math language and concepts, such as graphs and numerical data.
"It's as if you're trying to go into the third world war with World War I weapons," said Sanaa Hamdan, a earth and space sciences and physics teacher at Ribault High School.
Teachers have been countering this by incorporating hands-on activities. By using everyday items, ideas and concepts, the hope is that the topic will stick in the student's mind come test time.
"It involves a higher level of thinking," Hamdan said. "Students are involved in lower-level thinking, like memorization."
"You can't only be reading about science," said Senftleber. "You have to be doing science."
Aside from hands-on activities, Landschoot said familiarity with the FCAT science format is important. Stockton Elementary School, for example, is using new computer software, The FCAT Simulation, to help prepare students for the science portion of FCAT.
"I'm concerned that students that have not had hands-on work are going to fall short from those who have had experience," Landschoot said.
Before the students can prepare for this style of learning, the teachers have to be prepared to teach through hands-on activities. Hamdan considers professional development or training for science teachers a key challenge. …