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High school science under microscope after low test scores

The number of high school students in Detroit Lakes that are proficient in science is dropping, according to the Minnesota Comprehensive Assessments (MCA's).

Detroit Lakes Education Director Lowell Niklaus presented the information at the last school board meeting.

"It's not a pretty picture," Niklaus told the board, as he talked about high school science scores alone.

According to the report, the number of DL students proficient in science (according to this particular assessment) is 36 percent, which is down from 49 percent last year.

The state average sits at 53 percent.

On the flip side, the Middle School saw an increase in proficiency by 10 percent, reaching an above average 54 percent.

"It's still certainly not a great number, but it's an increase in terms of where they're at," said Niklaus, who added that Middle School students were previously below the state average in science for MCA assessment.

Better yet, however, are the elementary school scores of 60 percent, which are considerably higher than the state average of 46 percent.

For the MCA's, students are assessed to see how each school district stacks up against other Minnesota schools.

For a student to be labeled 'proficient,' they must meet or exceed state standards.

The Middle School science department drew accolades from the school board for their ability to strengthen the scores, as did the elementary schools for their 'excellence' in math.

Now, a plan of action to address the lack of science proficiency at the high school level is coming together, according to High School Principal Steve Morben.

"We certainly take responsibility for the scores," said Morben, "We're pulling student data, talking with the science department and school administrators to figure out why these scores are what they are."

Morben says he hopes to see school leaders tackle this as a district initiative in order to possibly better align instruction with state specifications.

Both Morben and Niklaus talked about the difficulty students face in taking this particular test because it is comprehensive, and students can be tested on material they learned three years ago.

That, however, is the issue all Minnesota students face, and with this being a peer comparison, the scores leave school administrators and school board members concerned for the High School.

"The elementary was excellent, and we want to see that continued on throughout Middle School and High School as they pass on from level to level," said School Board Vice Chair Tom Seaworth.

Morben says part of his plan is to sit down and have that conversation to find out what's happening at all levels.

"If there is success there at another level, let's have dialogue about what's making them successful and we can maybe emulate that," Morben said.

Both Morben and Niklaus brought up the point that most sections of the MCA's are not taken for graduation requirements, "It's simply a tool we use to assess where the students are at and which areas need work," said Niklaus, who suggests part of the problem could be the effort students put into the tests knowing they are not high stakes.

"Last year for the first time they changed it so that some of the questions on the 11th grade math tests were for graduation purposes," said Niklaus, "And those scores went up 13 percent in one year, so we don't know if this is a true reflection of what they can do when it's not a high-stakes test."

Results for reading and math were also released Wednesday, and although Niklaus says they haven't been able to pull together a detailed report yet, he says generally speaking, Detroit Lakes students went up in reading and down a little in math (except for 11th grade) -- a trend he says is statewide due to an increase in standards.

He says math tests are becoming increasingly difficult, as students in fifth grade could now be tested on what was previously sixth or even seventh grade material.

"There's a higher expectation there," said Niklaus, "and it's not always a quick, easy process to adjust the teaching methods to match that, but that's certainly what we're looking to do."

The Minnesota Department of Education will post a "report card" for each school on its website