A winning combination

Wednesday February 13, 2013

The results of the 2012 New England Common Assessment Program tests were released earlier this month, with most Vermont students showing some improvement in writing while math scores remained virtually unchanged.

Proficiency in writing ranged from 48 percent for high school students to 66 percent for middle school students, and math scores ranged from a paltry 38 percent for high school students to 65 percent for elementary and middle school students.

As any educator will tell you, however, a student’s full potential cannot possibly be measured by one single test. Some students simply don’t do well on standardized tests. Nor should an entire school be judged as a success or a failure based on that one test (thus the main complaint against the No Child Left Behind law).

According to Education.com, there are seven reasons why standardized tests are not working: At-risk students are placed at greater risk; lower graduation rates; high test scores do not mean more learning; standardized testing shrinks curriculum; the tests themselves are often flawed; teacher stress in preparing for the test; and other subjects, like history and art, are given less attention than the material being tested.

As the Huffington Post said in a recent article, "Continuously requiring children to prep and sit for standardized tests is not the same as teaching them. What’s more, the scores derived from all those tests do not give the school board an adequate picture of any child, struggling or exceeding."

On the flip side, there is some inherent value in these tests. Some type of assessment is needed to measure if children are learning the required material. The tests also help track the progress, or lack thereof, of a particular student or an entire school over the years.

Having said all that, there is one school that stands out not only here in Windham County, but in the state as well. For the second year in a row students at Dover School had high scores in both reading and math. In 2010-11, Dover School students scored 96 percent in reading and 86 percent in math. In 2011-12, the students received scores of 96 percent in reading again and 90 percent in math.

"We were really excited looking over last year’s scores and this year, only 3 out of 280-plus (schools) scored over 90 in reading and math in two consecutive years," Principal Bill Anton told the Reformer.

What’s impressive about Dover School, however, isn’t just the scores themselves, but the methods that led to this success. When it comes to preparing for these tests, Anton said his teachers do not focus on the NECAP tests themselves. Instead, they are designing classes that fit the Vermont curriculum and tailor to the students as individuals.

"I think that our teachers focus on instruction," said Anton. "They are outstanding instructional designers. We do not adopt a particular text book or instructional method. I think when you empower teachers in that fashion, they will go above and beyond to make sure that their instruction is effective."

In other words, there is no teaching to the test, and all the stress that involves, and no shrinking of the curriculum or less attention given to other subjects not covered in the testing material.

"There’s a lot of freedom in their classes," Anton said. "They design what the kids need. And along with that freedom, it is agreed upon the need that the kids can demonstrate their knowledge. So there’s real economy and purpose for the kids to get that mastery."

Anton attributes the success of his students to the parents and school board as well. Just as it takes a whole village to raise a child, it takes a whole village to educate them.

"Parents are very much a part of the school," he said. "They’re here every day, volunteering in our classrooms, running after-school programs, developing winter sports programs and coming to the morning sing-alongs every Friday."

As for the school board, he said, "We’ve been extremely lucky to have a really knowledgeable and future-oriented school board that allows me to have resources to allow the students to succeed."

So what we have here are teachers who are allowed to teach, parents who are involved in the school, and a supportive school board and community. Sounds like a winning combination to us.


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