District looking to modify science curriculum

Nov. 18, 2010

By Tim Simard
Observer staff

One thing parents, teachers and staff of the Williston School District can agree on is that low student science scores are intolerable. At a School Board meeting on Nov. 10, the administration set forth a series of planned changes — from the way science is taught to laboratory upgrades — to ensure scores for the NECAP science exams no longer sink below the state average.

“The downward trend is not acceptable, period,” District Principal Walter Nardelli said at the meeting.

Since the state first administered the New England Common Assessment Program science tests in 2008, eighth grade scores have dropped 20 percentage points in Williston. In 2008, 46 percent of Williston eighth graders tested proficient or higher; in 2010, 26 percent of eighth grade students scored at that level. Across the state in 2010, 29 percent of eighth graders scored proficient or higher.

When the science scores became public in late September, several parents reacted by writing critical letters to the editor in the Observer. Two parents also attended an October School Board meeting to air their complaints. Last week’s meeting drew approximately 30 parents and teachers, some of whom stressed the importance of more time for science instruction, as well as making sure each house teaches an equal amount of science.

For their part, administrators admitted that science had fallen through the cracks, but that planned improvements would hopefully reverse the trend of declining test scores.

“With our attention to literacy and math, this is an area where we have slipped,” said Molly McClaskey, the director of curriculum, instruction and assessment for Chittenden South Supervisory Union.

“We need to bring (science) back to the forefront,” she added.

Using a PowerPoint presentation, Nardelli and Williston Central School Principal Jackie Parks spent approximately 30 minutes explaining to the School Board and meeting attendees what changes the district has made and what it plans to make in terms of science instruction. The PowerPoint presentation can be found on the district’s website,, under the curriculum header and in the science link.

Part of the administration’s plan is to understand why there is such a decline between fourth grade scores and eighth grade scores. Williston fourth graders tested much higher in their NECAP exams; 64 percent of students tested proficient or higher compared to the state average of 54 percent.

Nardelli said students need to become more engaged in the sciences, adding that more hands-on instruction could help increase scores and interest in the subject. Students will receive science notebooks to log experiments and classes will focus more on laboratory instruction.

In terms of Williston Central School’s science labs, the district and the board will have to consider serious upgrades to some classrooms. Several spaces used for labs don’t have adequate electrical outlets to power equipment, and others may need more sinks, Nardelli said. Also, lab equipment needs better cataloguing, as much of it has not been properly disseminated since the configuration changes over the summer. These upgrades will have an impact on next year’s budget, Nardelli told the board.

“We’re putting together decision packets right now,” he said.

The proposed laboratory improvements seemed to sit well with parents. Mary Whitcomb said students learn science better when taking part in lab experiments.

“We really need to get kids engaged,” she said.

In discussing the science curriculum, Nardelli reiterated that students in all houses throughout the district are receiving a minimum of 120 hours per year of direct instruction as required by state education standards. But some parents disputed this, stating there is no equity in science instruction across the houses, which remains an ongoing problem.

Abby Klein and Jeff Smith said hours of instruction vary widely depending on the house. Klein said the school hasn’t done its work on determining that all houses are meeting state requirements.

“I know for a fact some houses aren’t getting close to the 120 hours (of instruction),” she said.

Echoing Klein’s call for consistency, Smith offered a solution to the administration and the School Board on how to better create an equitable science curriculum.

“My opinion is (science) is best taught in single grades, and that way you can really hit it hard,” Smith said.

While there is much work to be done, the administration is confident the changes will turn science scores around. McClaskey said the updates offer an “exciting time for Williston.” School Board members also expressed hope of improvement.

“It looks like a real blitz and we need it,” board member Darlene Worth said.