At Monday’s meeting of the Royal Palm Beach Education Advisory Board, Thomas Salinsky, elementary science program planner with the Palm Beach County School District, explained the advances it has made to turn around a downward trend in science scores.
Salinsky said a presentation that evening by Cypress Trails Elementary School about its science program was the perfect preamble to his presentation.
“That warms my heart because that is exactly what I’m talking to you about tonight, about some of the definite challenges that we have at the school district,” he said.
The long-term goals are high. In the next five years, the district wants to get 75 percent of third-graders reading at grade level.
“This lays the foundation for our challenges,” Salinsky said. “The research shows that we need to have a really good focus on what we’re doing in K through 5 instruction in science because that lays the foundation for success not in sixth through eighth grade, but also secondary and beyond.”
The district is developing elementary science programs that help students grapple with concepts as early as kindergarten.
“[They] actually spiral into middle school,” Salinsky said. “They’re tested in fifth grade, they’re tested in eighth grade, and beyond when the students in high school go out into physics and biology. The research tells us that we really need to focus on what we’re doing at that primary and elementary level, because it dictates their success in the future.”
In grades three and four, students study plant parts and functions, life cycles of plants and animals, weathering and erosion, mineral properties, the Earth’s rotation, and the movement of the sun, moon and stars. In grade five, they learn body organs and functions, electricity, and physical and chemical changes.
Salinsky said one of the issues is pressure for students to perform highly in fifth grade when they are tested.
“One of the challenges in the district and the state is that we have to stop looking at content areas in isolation,” he said. “We do a lot of looking at science and what we’re doing in fifth grade. We need to start looking vertically and focusing on what are we doing in kindergarten through fifth grade to make sure we build that success and that fidelity through the grade levels.”
He noted that Palm Beach County has always stayed above the state level.
“That’s good, and we’ve always remained at the top of the urban seven,” Salinsky said. “Last year, we slipped into second place in the urban seven, but that’s good because it creates competition, and competition motivates us to get back up to that top spot.”
Data from 2015 to 2016 showed that the district dropped 1 percent in science proficiency, which is not statistically significant, but the trend from 2013 to 2016 dropped 6 percent.
“We talked about the urgency for focus on science, and we should not see these scores in our district or in this state. So, we need to do a look at this as a learning community and a challenge to come together around, not just at what we’re doing at the school level but at the community level,” Salinsky said.
He said a significant number of elementary students perform below the district’s goals in certain areas of science where they should be proficient.
“These are concepts that should be taught and mastered in grades three and four, but are tested in fifth grade,” Salinsky said. “They are on the fifth-grade assessment. People look at the FCAT assessment in fifth grade as a one-year test… when in fact it measures what’s going on in three grades.”
Salinsky said the district puts a lot of pressure on fifth-grade teachers to prepare their students for the FCAT.
“If you knew where our kids were coming into fifth grade and where they end up at the end of fifth grade as far as science, you would want to give our fifth-grade science teachers a pat on the back,” he said. “They do amazing work.”
Much of the pressure on fifth-grade teachers is their having to teach concepts, especially in science, that students should have learned at earlier levels.
“Essentially, the curriculum has expanded, but the time that fifth-grade teachers have to teach it has shrunk,” Salinsky said. “So this is one of the reasons, I think, indicative of why we see these downward trends.”