Officials: Vermont school testing results show little change


BRATTLEBORO -- The Agency of Education released the results from the 2013 standardized tests Thursday.

The New England Common Assessment Program, or NECAPs, were given to students in grades three through eight, and in grade 11, in October and the results show pretty much the same trends that they show every year.

Students from low income households do not perform as well as their classmates from higher income families.

Girls do better than boys on the tests.

And generally Vermont students have shown very little progress since the NECAPs were first given in 2005.

In data released Thursday by the Agency of Education reading test scores in grades three through eight for the whole state remained about level between 2008 and 2012, with about 73 percent of the children in those grades showing proficiency.

Math scores for the same group of students between 2008 and 2012 also showed little improvement, with about 65 percent of the students showing proficiency on the tests.

And on the writing tests, which are given to a different group of students, the success was modest.

In grade eight, between 2008 and 2012, the percentage of Vermont students showing proficiency on the writing test rose from 54 percent to 66 percent.

Fifth graders actually showed a drop on the writing test from 55 percent in 2008 to 51 percent in 2012, while the percentage of Vermont students in grade 11 who were proficient on the writing test inched up from 43 percent to 46 percent.

So after spending millions of dollars on the tests and countless hours of class time, and then holding teachers and administrators accountable, what exactly was learned over the past nine years of administering the NECAPs?

"The whole testing system has been flawed from the start," said Windham Northeast Superintendent Chris Kibbe. "Humans are complex creatures and schools are full of complex humans. It is next to insane to say that how kids do on the tests can determine how well schools are doing on the whole."

This is the final year that Vermont will using the NECAPs to determine how schools are doing.

Vermont is moving toward the Smarter Balanced Assessment system, a new test based on the Common Core Standards, a K-12 set of education standards adopted by 47 states.

Kibbe hopes that as the state moves away from the NECAPs, it is an opportunity to re-examine how test results are considered as a portion of a comprehensive system for evaluating teachers and schools.

When the federal government passed the No Child Left Behind law in 2002 it tied federal education funding to test results.

If Vermont is going to make changes to how teachers and schools are graded it is going to take a complex initiative that will eventually have to be approved by the U.S. Department of Education.

Kibbe says test scores should be a piece of that assessment, but not the only factor that determines how well schools are doing.

School climate, health outcomes, the range of subjects taught and other measures should all be considered when determining how schools are performing, Kibbe said.

In the press release the Vermont Agency of Education issued Thursday with the test scores the state said "looking forward, the Agency of Education plans to develop a comprehensive accountability model. This model will include test scores in a portfolio of performance measures that provide a more comprehensive portrait of student learning in the state."

"What we need to do is test kids less and teach them more," Kibbe said. "It's a wild concept, isn't it?"

Windham Central Superintendent Steven John says the intense focus on math and language arts in the NECAPs has drained attention and resources from all of the other subjects that students have to develop as they make their way through the school system.

As the state moves toward a new test and progress rating scale, John said he wants schools to commit resources to other topics during the school day.

"When we only focus on math and language arts we narrow our scope, and I have seen an erosion in other areas that are so important to growth and personal development," John said. "We can't let the whole curriculum go just because we are all on the No Child Left Behind band wagon."

One of the biggest problems with the current system is that the scoring levels give an inaccurate snapshot of how schools are doing.

The state uses a four-tiered scoring system and students can score proficient with distinction, proficient, partially proficient or substantially below proficient.

But because there has to be a dividing line somewhere two students can be 18 points apart on the 20-point scale and both be graded as proficient, while two other students that are only two points apart on the scale can be separated between proficient and partially proficient.

The state releases the results, the newspapers report those results and schools that are actually moving students forward and making advancements are recognized as "failing."

"It may have been a mistake to just focus on two areas of content, reading and math, when determining accountability for schools," said Michael Hock, Agency of Education director of educational assessment. "It has prevented us from reporting on what is really good about schools beyond test scores."

Hock said leaving the NECAPs behind and starting a new test will give the state, teachers, schools and school boards a chance to take a breath and begin to look at testing, measuring progress and education with a fresh eye.

"It is human nature that if a teacher sees a testing program as punitive or unfair it will not help them," Hock said. "We want to be able to give teachers information that will help them do better and help their students. The bottom line is that unless teachers can take the information and use it to make changes in the classroom, we're not ever going to the see the kind of changes we want to see."

Howard Weiss-Tisman can be reached at 802-254-2311, ext. 279, or Follow Howard on Twitter @HowardReformer.


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