Close to 40 percent of Minnesota students in grades five and eight and in high school are proficient in science, according to the first statewide test on the subject.

At area districts, the percentage of students scoring proficient on the computerized Minnesota State Assessment II Science ranged from the low 30s to almost 60.

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Although the state launched the test as required under the federal No Child Left Behind law, schools don't face penalties as they do if they underperform on statewide reading and math assessments.

But with the recent push to equip students for a global contest over lucrative science and technology jobs, education officials are expected to dwell on the results.

Area educators stressed the novelty of the test and the high bar it set for students as they cautioned against fixating on the numbers.

"You see 60 percent non-proficient, and you think, 'Wow, are we total failures?' " said Moorhead High School science teacher Eric Stenehjem. "I don't think that's the case at all."

About 39 percent of the state's fifth-graders, 38 percent of eighth-graders and close to 43 percent of high school students scored proficient on the test. The results highlighted the state's persistent achievement gap, with black, Hispanic and American Indian students showing proficiency levels in the teens.

"Certainly I would hope the results would be higher," said Education Commissioner Alice Seagren. "We're hoping over time we'll continue to see improvement."

Lynne Kovash, superintendent of the Moorhead School District, suggested statewide science scores might reflect the intense spotlight on reading and math since No Child Left Behind went into effect.

"It really depicts some of the struggles we have in school districts across the state," said Kovash, whose district scored a hair below the state average. "For so many years, we've focused on reading and mathematics. There are only so many hours in the day."

In keeping with a statewide push for stronger science education, the district recently expanded its selection of high school science electives. It also appointed Stenehjem as a science, technology, engineering and mathematics teacher's coach.

The Ada-Borup district stood out among area districts, with more than 80 percent of its high school students scoring proficient. Science teacher Kevin Lindell said he and his students worked hard to cover the latest state science standards, adopted in 2003 and now under revision.

"We have no downtime at all," he said. "It's basically bell to bell, and it has to be because the amount of information the kids have to absorb is tremendous."

Lindell wishes the scramble to lecture and discuss the material didn't cut into time for hands-on lab work. Still, he welcomes the new stress on science: "The new standards have made me work twice as hard, and that's a good thing."

Richard Lahti, a Minnesota State University Moorhead professor who sat on expert panels on the test at the Department of Education, said the new format might have thrown students off: "The computerized format is not typically what students experienced when being assessed on the material in the classroom, and this mismatch might explain some of the problem."

At the end of the day, Stenehjem said, the test was just tough - as it should be.

"We're one of the best states in science," he said. "Do we push our kids and make a really hard test? Sure!"

Readers can reach Forum reporter Mila Koumpilova at (701) 241-5529