It's like they've done this before.
Nebraska's public school students improved their scores on the state science test during the second year of the exam, according to data released Tuesday.
The gains repeat what has happened before in Nebraska's still-young testing system: Teachers get familiar with the new standards, on which the tests are based, districts align what's taught to the standards, and scores go up.
School districts followed those steps in boosting their reading and math scores after those tests debuted. And public school students continued making gains in those areas as well, officials said Tuesday.
“The trends are all positive,” said Scott Swisher, Nebraska's deputy education commissioner.
Nebraska educators are working hard to improve students' proficiency on the standards, Swisher said.
State officials predicted such improvement when they rolled out the new testing regimen that became fully operational last school year.
But state officials also said the trends reflect more than just districts getting up to speed on teaching the new material. Valorie Foy, the state's director of assessment, said the scores reflect student learning.
The Nebraska State Accountability assessments measure whether students in select grades have mastered the state's academic standards. State officials rewrote some of the standards over the past five years in an effort to make them more rigorous.
About 155,000 students took the tests last spring. Ninety-six percent were tested online.
Statewide, the number of students scoring proficient, meaning that they met or exceeded the standards, increased in reading, math and science.
In the Omaha Public Schools, the science proficiency rate for fifth-graders was 46 percent, basically unchanged from a year ago.
Proficiency for the district's eighth-graders rose from 40 percent to 43 percent. Fifty percent of OPS's 11th-graders were proficient, up 9 percentage points.
The science gains in OPS came at schools with substantial numbers of students in poverty as well as at schools with a majority of students from higher-income families.
For instance, science proficiency at high-poverty Nathan Hale Middle School increased from 19.1 percent to 23 percent, while at suburban Alice Buffett Middle School it was up from 73 percent to 76 percent.
OPS Superintendent Mark Evans said the district is headed in the right direction. He said OPS expects higher scores in the future.
“We all feel the same way,” he said. “We demand that. We are going to have that.”
ReNae Kehrberg, OPS assistant superintendent, said the district's students posted higher scores because the Omaha district continues to use its test data to improve instruction and coach its teachers.
To address the flat science scores in fifth grade, Kehrberg said, officials will make sure science teachers have more training and support.
OPS, however, posted flat scores in other areas as well, including on the fourth-grade reading test, on which 66 percent of OPS students were proficient.
Evans said creating and implementing a district strategic plan will help accelerate the raising of scores. That planning process has begun.
Other districts also improved their science marks.
Lincoln's science scores jumped at the fifth and 11th grade levels because teachers worked on realigning curriculum and focused on reteaching some content, said Jane Stavem, associate superintendent for instruction at the Lincoln Public Schools.
The Bellevue Public Schools made a gain in 11th-grade science from 70 percent of students meeting or exceeding standards in 2012 to 75 percent in 2013.
Julee Sauer, the district's director of curriculum and instruction, said Bellevue adjusted its science curriculum in 2011, after the new standards were released, to make sure that all indicators were being taught.
The standards and indicators provide a good foundation for a comprehensive curriculum, she said. But that doesn't mean instruction is scripted. Each district has discretion to interpret the standards. Teachers collaborate on the best way to deliver the information to students.
Kristi Gibbs, the Ralston Public Schools assistant superintendent for learning, said the district has also been looking at timing — matching when specific areas are tested to when they're taught, to make sure that all kids have a chance to learn them. Ralston's 11th-grade science scores went from 54 percent meeting or exceeding standards to 69 percent proficient.
Middle elementary grades, for example, were getting life sciences covered but weren't getting into much earth science. That has been adjusted, so district officials expect jumps in those scores.
“We've been able to go back and made sure kids are getting what they need at every level,” she said. “Teachers have worked hard to understand the standards and the best practices to get that information to students.”