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10th-graders girding for science test

The answer: Liquid nitrogen, a rocket, and a right whale.

The question: How do educators inspire students to love science?

It may sound like a quirky "Jeopardy" quiz, but this is no game. Beginning with the class of 2010 (this year's high school sophomores), students must be able to demonstrate a solid command of the science material they are studying in 10th grade - physics, biology, chemistry, or technology and engineering - in order to receive a diploma.

High school students got their first crack at the tests in the spring. On average statewide, one in four failed. Failure rates in the northern suburbs varied widely, with the region's urban school systems showing the greatest need for improvement, according to data released by the Massachusetts Department of Education on Monday.

Amesbury, Lynn, Revere, and Saugus each had one school where more than 95 percent of students scored below the "proficient" level on at least one of the four exams, illustrating locally the statewide need for improved science education.

The results have reignited concerns about the tests. Some critics fear that teachers will focus too much on test preparation, leaving little classroom time for the kinds of experiments that help students grasp complicated subjects and inspire them to pursue careers in scientific or technological fields. Others worry that the tests may prompt districts to focus their resources on areas that might not ultimately be of the biggest benefit to students.

"In engineering, for example, there are so many opportunities available to our students these days, opportunities that fall outside of the traditional sciences, but we're being forced by these tests to focus our resources on the traditional sciences - physics, biology, and chemistry," said Paul Dakin, superintendent of schools in Revere, where four out of five students at the district's alternative high school failed their MCAS science exams this spring. "For the first time, the tests are driving our curriculum. That never happened with math or English, but it is happening in science: It's changing our courses and the way we are sequencing them."

In Revere, students used to take introductory physics their freshman year. Beginning this year, they must take biology instead. Dakin said the switch was made after Revere educators realized that starting in 2009, the biology MCAS test would be given twice each year, while the other science tests would be administered only once each year. The rationale, he said, was simple: Exposing students to biology in their freshman year would give them more chances to clear the MCAS hurdle.

"As an educator, I think the testing is a valuable tool that should be used to help us focus our curriculum, but I don't like it as a punitive measure," said Dakin. "There is more to an education than sitting for a single test. There should be other ways for students to exhibit competency."

Dakin's view was echoed by educators throughout the region. Many were quick to note that long before the Board of Education decided to make passing an MCAS science test a graduation requirement, educators in the suburbs north of Boston were emphasizing the importance of science.

To drive the point home, many school districts are embracing innovative ways of encouraging students to explore science. Several districts are partnering with local education foundations, the Museum of Science, or the New England Aquarium to bring complicated concepts alive in the classroom.

"Motivating the kids is key," said David Lenihan, science curriculum coordinator for the Lynn public schools, the region's largest school system with more than 13,600 students. "To master a complex subject, they really have to be excited about learning so we try to ignite their passion for science."

Lenihan noted that hands-on experiments and guest speakers are commonplace in Lynn schools, where students tinker with magnets and electrical currents, and sit spellbound as balloons shrink before their eyes when dipped in liquid nitrogen. Just this week, the New England Aquarium sent a model of a right whale to the Washington Community School, giving elementary students there a rare chance to examine the magnificent mammal up close.

Lenihan acknowledged that there is room for improvement in Lynn, as measured by the state tests: Only 53 percent of the students who sat for the MCAS biology exam passed the test; the pass rate for chemistry was only slightly better, at 60 percent.

However, as far as Lenihan is concerned, the new graduation requirement won't change the structure of Lynn's science courses: Hands-on experiments will continue to be an integral part of the curriculum. The test results will simply serve as a tool, to help educators enhance what they are already doing.

"Curriculum is always a work in progress," said Lenihan, who plans to analyze the test data to see whether students are struggling with certain concepts or particular types of questions. "Student populations change, the standards change, and the test changes, and all of those factors come into play."

The new MCAS science tests include a mix of multiple-choice and open-ended questions that are designed to draw on the knowledge students are expected to gain through classroom lectures, textbooks, and experiments.

In Melrose, educators believe the tests will ultimately help teachers focus more on science, much in the same way that added emphasis was placed on reading and math skills when competency in those content areas became a graduation requirement.

"The more in-depth you go, the better the student's understanding," said Pat Muxie, director of curriculum for the Melrose public schools. "I don't see us doing away with the kinds of science experiments that spark the imagination; if anything, I think we may be seeing more of them."

Brenda J. Buote may be reached at bbuote@comcast.net.

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