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Educators say scores reflect progress

Nov. 08, 2012 @ 11:10 PM

HUNTINGTON -- Village of Barboursville Elementary School saw its WESTEST 2 scores improve last year after implementing a science-based curriculum through an Innovation Zone waiver from the state.

Now in its second year, teachers are embracing the model that incorporates science into every subject by blending the curriculum "across subject areas to take advantage of the natural connections among them," as noted in the school's December 2010 application to the state Board of Education.

Innovation Zones, which were approved by the Legislature and the West Virginia Department of Education in 2009, allow schools, groups of schools or departments within schools to apply for waivers that allow them to circumvent certain state policies or codes.

Principal Terry Porter said the concept is working well. He is quick to point to any of the classrooms where students are learning all the required content standards and objectives through hands-on science experiments using the FOSS (full option science system) curriculum.

A few weeks ago, students in Crystal Wheeler's fifth-grade class were constructing land forms using sand, clay and rocks on stream tables. Then, they poured water to see how it affected the land formation. Students worked in groups of three or four, but each had to write hypotheses and then record what happened.

Wheeler pointed out that the experiment incorporated math, geography and reading -- the same as any experiment would have in the past. Now, she said, it is being recognized and emphasized. It also changes how she teaches.

"The role of the teacher has to shift; it's all teacher-led," Wheeler said. "It's high-level thinking skills, and they're making real-world assessments."

When the school applied for the waiver and grant, Porter noted the test scores had become stagnant. Porter recalled one encounter with a student who said school was boring and he didn't like it.

"We looked at the curriculum and realized it wasn't working," Porter said. "It didn't meet the kids' learning styles."

Last year's WESTEST 2 data suggests the new approach is working. Proficiency scores for the entire school improved in all four areas: math, 47 percent to 52 percent; reading, 55 percent to 63 percent; science, 49 percent to 52 percent; and social studies, 47 percent to 49 percent.

In looking at the same group of students in a year-to-year comparison from 2010-2011 to 2011-2012, scores also showed dramatic increases. As fifth-graders last year, the students improved by nearly 13 percent in math, 6 percent in reading, 9 percent in science and 3.5 percent in social studies compared with their scores as fourth-graders before the science-based curriculum was implemented. Except for social studies, in which 48.6 percent tested proficient, more than half of those fifth-graders tested proficient in reading, science and math.

"The scores are much better (because) it's more real to them," Wheeler said.

The students also like what they're doing in class, with some saying they are able to go home and duplicate the experiments.

"It's much more fun than reading the book," said fifth-grader Will Turman. "You learn more by seeing what happens. You can remember it better."

Even art teacher Joanne Gelin works science into projects, writing on her weekly projects, "How is science used in this lesson plan?"

And fifth-grade teacher Amy Jenkins had her students draw themselves as scientists to demystify the goggles-and-lab coat stereotype.

"We talked about people conducting experiments every day," Jenkins said. "Each student tried to envision themself as a scientist."