SCIO — Kim Roth had a question for her fourth-graders to explore as part of a science lab at Centennial Elementary School: Will a mountain last forever? 

Some of her students thought it might, because after all, mountains are made of rock. But after a discussion about freezing and thawing, root wedges and the general wear and tear from erosion, most had a different idea.

Following Roth's line of questioning, the students designed an experiment to test how mountains change. To simulate a rock rolling down a hill, they placed sugar cubes in plastic containers and shook them for a count of 40. They colored the edges of two of the cubes to better show the effects.

Scio students, particularly at the elementary level, score consistently higher on state assessment tests for science than their mid-valley counterparts. Teachers and principals say labs like Centennial's are part of that difference.

The district shone once again in state assessment results released Thursday by the Oregon Department of Education, beating the state average by more than 15 points.

Thursday's scores, which reflect the 2016-17 school year, are the third set issued under the new Smarter Balanced testing system for math and reading. Those two tests show mixed results, with overall state scores sliding a little from the previous year in both subjects.

Most Linn County school districts followed that trend, and only Central Linn met or surpassed the state average in all subjects. (See the attached graphic for Linn County results. Complete grade, school and district results are to be posted by the state on its website, www.ode.state.or.us.)

Oregon students in grades 3-8 and grade 11 have been taking Smarter Balanced, or SBAC, tests since 2015. But science, although on its way to being measured by a new test cued to "Next Generation" science standards, is still tested under the old Oregon Assessment of Knowledge and Skills, or OAKS. 

OAKS tests in science are given annually in grades 5, 8 and 11. In the mid-valley, Scio's OAKS science scores continue to outpace others. The district had a 77.7 percent all-grades pass rate for 2016-17 compared to the state average of 61.4 percent. That's the highest total in both Linn and Benton counties.

The district also saw a 7-point jump from the previous total, which was 70.7 percent for 2015-16.

Scio's rates hold up from grade to grade, too. High school juniors scored a 70.1 percent pass rate last year compared to the state's 56 percent average. Eighth-graders hit 74.1 percent while the state averaged just 61.8 percent. And Scio's fifth-graders topped them all with an 89.7 percent pass rate compared to the state's 65.1 percent, also the highest in the two-county area. 

High scores on OAKS science tests aren't new for the district, which has always had a strong science tradition, Superintendent Gary Tempel said. But they indicate that teacher efforts to be innovative and work together, plus recent changes made at each grade level, are continuing to drive that tradition.

Scio High School, for instance, added an Earth Science class a few years ago specifically for juniors. It's a built-in safety net for anyone who hasn't yet met the science standards, Principal Pat Dutcher said.

Scio Middle School has worked hard at making sure classes fill any gaps between the current state science standards and the Next Generation standards the state is phasing in, Principal Greg Nolan said. For example, students learn about the periodic table of elements in seventh grade under the current standards, but get a review in eighth grade so the concepts will be fresh for the test.

"And then we also have a really good outdoor school program that hits a lot of those standards," Nolan said. "That piques interest and sets the tone for middle school science. And we have a couple trips to OMSI (the Oregon Museum of Science and Industry) to keep interest and curiosity going."

At Centennial Elementary School, Principal Luke Zedwick said continued strength in science may be the result of stressing not science itself, but language.

The school began a program about a year and a half ago called GLAD, which stands for Guided Language Acquisition Design.

GLAD is actually meant to help students who are learning English as a second language. That makes up a very small population at Centennial, but the training and teaching concepts work schoolwide, Zedwick said.

Using GLAD, students pick up new vocabulary concepts in a variety of ways: through drawings, sign language, definition repetition and other activities all designed to drive an idea home and make it stick. In Roth's class, for instance, students added vocabulary language to posters depicting changes in mountain topography, then discussed those changes before moving to the sugar cube experiment.

The lab was part of an overall unit on engineering, specifically on how engineers cope with landslides, Roth said. Besides the science standards, the unit hits reading, writing, listening, public speaking and working in groups.

Science and social studies classes were the first beneficiaries of GLAD, and it's those students — fifth-graders last year — whose scores jumped to nearly 90 percent.

"Historically, Scio is awesome at science," Zedwick said. And as for the top scores last year: "We're looking at doing it again."

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