Monday February 11, 2013

BRATTLEBORO -- The Vermont Department of Education released the results of the latest statewide tests last week and they showed the usual range of outcomes to which education officials have become accustomed.

Some schools met or exceeded the statewide average in the number of students proficient in math, reading and writing, while others fell short.

Statewide, and throughout Windham County, schools continue to see a gap between how children from low income households compare with their classmates in proficiency levels.

And even after years on technical assistance and concentrated instruction, some schools still are failing to move enough of their students forward to satisfy the demands of the No Child Left Behind Act.

But educators are looking at this year's results through different lenses as Vermont schools begin to prepare for life beyond the New England Common Assessment Program, the standardized test that the state developed with New Hampshire and Rhode Island and which have been given to students in those three states since 2005.

Maine joined the multi-state consortium in 2009.

The reading and math NECAPs were given to students in the fall in grades 3 through 8, and in grade 11, while the writing tests were given in grades 5, 8 and 11.

Vermont will give the NECAPs one more time, in the fall of 2014.

Starting in the spring of 2015 Vermont will be administering a new test, the Smarter Balanced Assessment, which is aligned to the Common Core, a U.S. education initiative that is being adopted by 44 states.

Administrators evaluated this year's results with the usual mixed signals: Praising the hard work in schools which were able to advance their students while pointing out that the NECAP results were only one measurement of a school's work when other schools did not show progress.

Windham Southeast Curriculum Coordinator Paul Smith said the NECAPs were recognized for the multi-state collaboration that went into creating them and he said the results have given teachers powerful data to focus their instruction through the years.

Yet at the same time he said the new standards raise the bar for schools all over the country and the Smarter Balanced Assessment will mark the next step in more focused and advanced standardized tests.

"I think the NECAPs, for their time, were a pretty good test," said Smith. "Given the changes coming up, and the more coherence in standards, the new tests make more sense."

Michael Hock, director of educational assessment at the Vermont Department of Education, said that while teachers and administrators have already begun to get ready for the new test there will be some big changes.

"The new assessments have similarities to our current standards but there are some big differences too," Hock said. "Back in 2004 (the NECAPS) used the best knowledge that was available at the time. Some people did not like the test but it was useful. I believe it made a difference."

Hock said the NECAPs have given schools important information as teachers and administrators were able to focus on students with difficulties, and across the state there are examples of schools that have been able to close their achievement gap and bring the scores up for all students.

"The schools that have made the gains say the test has been useful," Hock said. "It is not about teaching to the test, but the tests are used to drive the dialogue around professional development."

Still, Hock says the new Smarter Balanced Assessment is going to be a big change.

Every child who takes the Smarter Balanced Assessment will work on a computer, a big change from the pencil and paper required for the NECAPs.

Also, the new tests will be responsive so that the next question the student sees will be determined by how she or he does on the previous question.

The assessments have the potential to give teachers more timely and accurate information about their students.

It will make it much harder for students to cheat on the test, since every student will be looking at different questions, and the technology will allow teachers to administer the tests at different times so the test period is less disruptive.

One of the challenges for rural states like Vermont will be to make sure all of the schools have the necessary number of computers and the bandwidth needed to carry the information.

"We have our fingers crossed," Hock said about the state's drive to get the schools ready. "Our technological readiness study looks good."

Along with the big changes in curriculum and assessments, schools are also getting ready for a new era in how the results are measured and what implications schools will face when their results fail to meet predetermined benchmarks.

The NECAPs were given right at the end of the No Child Left Behind law, which set what most educators called an impossible goal of having every single student perform at grade level before 2014.

The federal education law was supposed to be rewritten in 2011, and now that 2013 is here, and clearly not every single student in America is performing at or above grade level, administrators are waiting to see what is coming next.

Windham Northeast Superintendent Chris Kibbe said the NECAPs, for what they were, helped teachers and administrators, but it was always unfair to tie the results to No Child Left Behind's unrealistic proficiency goals.

"No Child Left Behind was always preposterous and in the end the system self destructed," Kibbe said. "The benchmarks were ridiculous."

And Windham Central Superintendent Steven John said the NECAPs were only the latest in a very long line of standardized assessments that educators have been using to try to improve instruction.

John said there was a lot to look forward to with the Common Core and the Smarter Balanced Assessment on the horizon.

"I look at it as an evolution. I think they get better and better as we go on," John said. "We have plenty of work to do. It will take a long term and consistent effort to make a difference. It's a long road and we've got a long way to go."

Howard Weiss-Tisman can be reached at 802-254-2311, ext. 279, or hwtisman@reformer.com. You can follow him on Twitter @HowardReformer.