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September 27. 2012 9:43PM

Granite State students seen near top in science, math rankings

MANCHESTER — The seemingly low rate of proficiency in science among New Hampshire students is a result of higher standards for student performance in the state compared to the rest of the country, a national science education advocacy group claims.

“It has something to do with whether the bar is higher; there are states where, by objective measures, students are not doing as well as New Hampshire,” said Claus von Zastrow, research director for Change the Equation. “In some states, it looks like 80 or 90 percent are proficient, but it's because they set the bar lower.”

Change the Equation is a Washington-based group funded by large and small companies across the nation with an interest in fostering better education in science, technology, engineering and mathematics, known to educators by the acronym STEM.

The recently released New England Common Assessment Program (NECAP) test results show that 60 percent of students who took the science exam in May fell short of the level of proficient or better set by the state.

But Von Zastrow says a Change the Equation analysis suggests that being considered proficient in New Hampshire is more difficult than in other states when it comes to the tests in the STEM disciplines.

The organization says an analysis of state proficiency exams compared to student performance on National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) math and science tests, shows New Hampshire standards at or near the top among the states.

“The state stretches its math and science education dollars farther than other states do,” the group said in a report released last year.

The No Child Left Behind Act, enacted in 2001, seeks to force states to develop ways of assessing student performance, but let individual states come up with the tests.

“With No Child Left Behind, the expectation was that states would reach 100 percent proficiency,” Von Zastrow said. “The argument was made that it did indeed encourage dumbing down.”

New Hampshire students also benefit from a better-educated science faculty in secondary schools compared to other states.

“In New Hampshire, in the earliest grades in elementary school, there are very, very few teachers who have an undergraduate degree in math or science,” Van Zastrow said. “But more than six in 10 New Hampshire eighth-graders have a science teacher with an undergraduate major in science; that's better than nationally, where it is less than half.”

Even so, the fourth-grade students who took the NECAP test last May fared better than their middle school and high school colleagues, with 54 gaining a rating of proficient or better.

The improve the quality of elementary-level instruction in the sciences, the Change the Equation has recommended improved professional development to help teachers learn the most effective ways to provide instruction in the STEM subjects.

Change the Equation is supported by a large number of top technology companies, including Microsoft, Intel, BAE Systems and Sony, as well as smaller science-driven companies across the country.

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Bill Smith may be reached at wsmith@unionleader.com.

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