Vermont will not use standardized test scores

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BARRE >> When Vermont first announced that it would be using a new standardized test to gauge progress in the public schools, the tests were heralded as a new, accurate, adaptive, differentiated and fully computerized alternative to the New England Common Assessment Program.

The Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium, or SBAC, tests were going to give teachers almost instant feedback on where their students needed help and the state promised that every school would have access to the technology and bandwidth needed to complete the assessments.

But as schools are beginning to give those tests to their students this month the State Board of Education has decided that Vermont is not in fact ready for the transition.

The State Board of Education voted unanimously Tuesday to not use the SBAC scores for the 2014-15 school year for the purpose of annual school evaluation determinations.

That decision was part of a resolution approved by the board Tuesday which also asks Congress to amend the No Child Left Behind Act to reduce testing mandates and allow flexibility in showing progress of students.

Since Congress passed the No Child Left Behind Law in 2001 the U.S. Department of Education has required states to give the standardized tests as a way to show progress and determine if all students were reaching grade level proficiency.

Vermont schools expected the state to use the results from the SBAC tests to determine adequate yearly progress this year, but the board's vote Tuesday raises a number of questions about how the state will track school performance this year.

"This is a brand new test. The board feels like this is a transition year and we don't know what measures the results are going to give us," Vermont Secretary of Education Rebecca Holcombe said in an interview Wednesday. "Until there is more clarity we don't feel it makes sense to use the results to make determinations on the quality of our schools."

Every state has to submit an accountability plan to the U.S. Department of Education explaining how schools will be evaluated in the coming year. The millions of dollars in federal aid schools receive is contingent on the Education Department accepting that plan.

Earlier this year Holcombe sent a memo to school principals who were threatening not to give the tests, warning them that their federal aid would be withheld if they did not administer the tests.

Holcombe admitted that the state's next step at this point is unclear.

Before the April State Board of Education meeting, Holcombe said, the Agency of Education will come up with a plan to submit to the U.S. Department of Education.

Holcombe said schools will be asked to continue giving the tests over the next weeks, but to consider the exercise a pilot program for fine tuning the new computerized standardized tests.

Krista Huling is a teacher at South Burlington High School and a member of the State Board of Education.

At the meeting Tuesday Huling said teachers were spending too much time trying to learn the computer program and get their computers to work.

"It just seems like common sense (to not use the results). Out in the field people are just absolutely crazy trying to figure out how to administer the test," Huling told the rest of the board Tuesday. "I think during the first year there is even more anxiety. We want to suspend these scores for a year."

The SBACs are based on new national educational standards called the Common Core which Huling said Vermont schools have only been using for a few years.

She said teachers and administrators would be set up to fail if their test results were used this year.

"This does not seem like a proper way to rank schools. This does not fit our philosophy," Huling said. "It really does do harm when we label schools based on this test and we need to hold off on that and give the field time to catch up. It's a huge change and having people rank schools based on that change just doesn't feel right."

Bill Mathis, a State Board member and former superintendent said principals around the state have been complaining about the computer program, technical glitches, and the amount of time spent practicing and helping students get comfortable with the new program.

"There are all kinds of technical complexities," Mathis said. "And for those students who have not had the same access to computers as compared to those to who it is more natural it is going to make a big difference, and we're not going to know if that is because they know more or because they have better computer access."

Holcombe stressed that there were still many aspects of the SBAC test which could yield useful data to Vermont schools and teachers.

As students take the interactive test, which is performed on a laptop or tablet, the program adjusts the difficulty of the next question based on whether the student got the previous one right.

That model can be more engaging to a student who is struggling and might give up on a paper-and-pencil test, while also presenting a greater challenge to a student who is performing well above grade level.

The results, test proponents say, are more accurate and can be quickly distributed to teachers.

And Holcombe said standardized tests do shine a light on the ongoing challenge of educating children from low income families who continue to lag behind their classmates.

"We are in transition and transitions are hard, and we don't know fully how this will play out" Holcombe said. "We think there are ways to negotiate with the Department of Education. This is an evolving conversation."

Howard Weiss-Tisman can be contacted at 802-254-2311 ext. 279.


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