Rhode Island students underperformed on standardized science tests for a second straight school year in 2009, and the state department of education is working with a Texas-based think tank to bring those scores up.
About 25 percent of all students who took the test scored "proficient" or better, according to results released last week by the state. That represents a small increase from 2008, the first year students took the science test offered by the New England Common Assessment Program. The test, which is also administered in New Hampshire and Vermont, was given in May to public school students in grades 4, 8 and 11.
About 40 percent of fourth graders scored "proficient," an increase of 4 percent from 2008. About 19 percent of high-school students — also more than last year — scored "proficient."
But the 8th-grade sample did slightly worse than last year, with just 18 percent scoring "proficient." Rhode Island students performed worse than their New Hampshire and Vermont counterparts in every grade.
"These scores are nowhere near where they need to be," Deborah Gist, the state's commissioner of elementary and secondary education, said in a press release.
Native American, black and Hispanic students underperformed their white and Asian peers, according to the data. Although these groups showed small improvements in each grade level, only 3.3 percent of middle schoolers and 4.6 percent of high schoolers in those demographics passed the most recent exam.
Following poor results in the 2008 test, Rhode Island brought in experts from the Charles A. Dana Center at the University of Texas, Austin to revamp the curriculum in 17 districts.
The state plans a three-year contract with the think tank, which will work to see that students are being properly taught standards measured by the test, said Elliot Krieger, spokesman for the department of education.
The districts will not end up with the same curriculum, but will all have curricula aligned to the same standards, he said. He added that the Providence school district acted as a "pioneer" in hiring consultants from the Dana Center separately, before the state followed suit.
The Dana Center supports K-12 education by helping teachers understand the state's standards and how to create units of study to meet them, preparing students for tests and the next grade, said Joseph Gallegos, a senior program coordinator at Dana who is working with the state. Because the standards are broad, it is helpful to sort out which teachers need to teach what, he said.
Consultants will start planning new curricula for the districts next year, he added.
Jennifer Park, a research assistant at Brown who works with Providence high-schoolers in science, said that the low scores did not shock her as much as last year, but the gaps between rich and poor, as well as white and minority students were still "surprising."
Park, who works in the department of molecular biology, cell biology and biochemistry, co-coordinates Brown Science Prep, which teams undergraduates up to teach interactive science lessons to high-schoolers on Saturday mornings. Initially, about 40 students come each week, generally tapering down to about 30 later in the year, she said.
Park said that while she does not have much information about the new science curriculum Providence public schools are implementing, she hopes the changes will help.