On school testing, student performance

Editor of the Reformer:

Superintendent Chris Kibbe is right that schools are full of complex humans, and that tests should be a part of the assessment of schools and teachers, but only partly right to deny that how kids do on the tests can determine how well schools are doing on the whole. The first function of the tests should be to illuminate individual students' strengths and shortcomings, to guide teaching to improve the students' achievement. To the extent that administrators and teachers do or neglect to do this, the test results will improve or not in later years.

This argument for the use of tests particularly applies to teaching students from low-income households. The adults in these homes have less time and money than middle and upper income families to spend on supporting the kids' education. They have probably had on average less education themselves than higher income adults, given this trend in our society. They particularly depend on school to teach their children. Yet the fact that the gap between students from lower and higher income households has stayed steady since 2005 tells us that the tests have not been used effectively to narrow this gap. However, at the same time that this is true overall, there are schools whose leadership has worked with the teachers to use the tests to good effect, with the achievement of the low income students rising more than in the state as a whole.

The Reformer is right in its editorial that Vermont class sizes are too small, but this also needs a more complex understanding. Even the new sizes being considered are small by the definition of not more than 15 students. We might think that small classes benefit children who need teaching the most, but a study in 2008 found that already-higher achieving students benefited more than the lower achievers. This reflects the fact that the higher achievers know better how to access the teacher. There have been no studies that looked at how family income figures in, but a well-known, earlier finding from the same Tennessee sample showed that black students benefited from smaller classes more than whites. My hunch is that race here is an approximation to family income. Putting all this together, we can hypothesize that higher achieving students from low income families benefit the most, and that lower achieving, low income students would benefit more if their teachers had training and strategies for reaching them.

All of this is further complicated by the Common Core specifying numerous standards to be met at each grade level. Superintendent Steven John is right that other areas than just reading, writing and math, soon to be joined by science, are needed for students' growth and personal development. Schools could employ what we used to call a "post holing" approach, digging down into topics that lend themselves to drawing upon different subjects, including literature, social studies, and music and art, to complement the STEM subjects. Teachers' creativity and collaboration will be needed to make this work.

Joseph Grannis,

Jamaica, Feb 8

Editor's note: A letter by "Jackie" Brook, which originally appeared in this Letter Box, was removed by request. The "letter" in question was not intended for publication; rather it was a copy/pasted news item sent to the editorial board as a reference. We apologize for the error.