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Weird science: Lessons on hold to prep for FCAT

Here is one more piece of the shocking reality of how the push to score high on state tests cheats students.

By Laura Green

When Priya Mistry returned from winter break, she expected to spend the next quarter in chemistry learning about Avogadro's number and converting moles to mass. Instead, her teacher said he was throwing out the chemistry curriculum for the next seven weeks and teaching a review for the science FCAT.

"It's kind of easier than the normal chemistry would be," said the Palm Beach Gardens High junior, who's not entirely displeased. "But we're supposed to be doing chemistry."

Scores on the science portion of the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test figured into school grades for the first time last year. The results weren't pretty. Only 42 percent of county high school students passed the test. Now, some high school principals are looking for unorthodox ways to improve school grades.

"We have to understand that the FCAT is a reality," said Jon Prince, principal of Palm Beach Gardens High. "It's robbing Peter to pay Paul. For the most part, the students understand it. It's not all year long."

At Palm Beach Lakes High School, 22 percent of juniors made a 3 out of a possible 5, a passing score on the science FCAT in 2007.

So this year, all 11th-grade science teachers were told to stop curriculum and review FCAT skills until the test.

"The way I see it, they're still learning science," Principal Nathan Collins said.

Students don't have much built-in motivation for the test, he said.

While failing scores count against schools, they don't hurt students. To graduate, students must pass only the math and reading FCAT.

"We just have to bombard them," Collins said. "We understand that."

The science FCAT is given in grades 5, 8 and 11. Students at all levels posted lackluster scores last year, but high schools were particularly hard hit. One reason, science teachers say, is that the test encompasses a broad range of science disciplines taught over several years.

"Substantial parts of the FCAT science test, they never get exposed to in high school," said Brian Hicks, Palm Beach Gardens High science department head. "We have to ensure they get that kind of basic science."

Some advanced students taking honors classes who expected to ace the test have failed it because they haven't seen earth and space science since eighth grade, Hicks said.

In response to the science FCAT, high schools are now offering an integrated science course that covers physical, earth and space sciences for freshmen. But other science courses tend to concentrate on a single discipline, such as biology or zoology.

Steve Crandall, president of the Florida Association of Science Teachers, said he knew of no other high schools in Florida suspending the regular curriculum to brush up before the FCAT.

But he was sympathetic to the pressure felt by principals and science teachers.

"Why these scores are so important that they're able to drive out curriculum for test preparation is maybe a question worthy of a good answer as well," he said.

Fred Barch, the district's science program planner, had no count of how many county schools dropped their regular science curriculum and now will have to fit two quarters worth of teaching into one.

At schools that did, Advanced Placement students are typically exempt. At the end of the year, they take an exam on course content that could qualify them for college credit.

To help teachers get ready for the test, Barch's science staff created daily FCAT exercises teachers could use starting in September. Called FCAT RX, the mini lessons are taught via PowerPoint with video clips and animation. They are designed to get students ready for all the disciplines on the test in about five minutes a day.

Most students need a review to do well on the test, said Nicole Dougherty, a science teacher at Santaluces High School. Her students do a daily warm-up drill modeled after FCAT questions. When they struggle with a specific tested topic, she spends more time on it.

But devoting seven weeks to review would be a "disservice" to her students who need to learn her courses' intended content, she said.

"They don't come to FCAT school, they come to high school to learn a topic," she said. "If I was a teacher who only cared about scores, I could very well be wooed" to suspend the regular lessons. "We just feel like a good education for these kids will, in turn, give them good, positive scores on the FCAT."

— Laura Green
Palm Beach Post


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