By KATHRYN FLAGG
ADDISON COUNTY — Nine Addison County schools fell short of federal performance goals set by the No Child Left Behind Act, Vermont education officials reported last week.
The schools were among 88 statewide — 29 percent of Vermont’s schools — that did not achieve the performance goals as determined by the New England Common Assessment Program scores from the standardized tests administered last October. Statewide, students in grades three through eight and grade 11 take the NECAP annually.
Though principals at the struggling local schools said they take NECAP scores and No Child Left Behind assessments seriously, many said that their schools’ performance shouldn’t be judged on the basis of one test alone.
“I think what would be important … is for schools to be able to share other information about what’s happening in the classrooms,” said Heather Best, the principal at Shoreham Elementary School, which did not meet performance standards for math or reading this year.
“As a school, we haven’t been static,” Best said. “We’ve been aggressively looking at how we can support students. Things we’ve been doing aren’t going to be reflected in the NECAP overnight.”
Brandon’s Neshobe Elementary, Bridport Central, Bristol Elementary, Mary Hogan Elementary in Middlebury, and Vergennes Union Elementary rounded out the list of area primary schools that did not meet performance standards. They’re joined by three of the four area union high schools: Vergennes, Otter Valley and Mount Abraham.
The performance standards are set by the federal No Child Left Behind Act, which was enacted in 2002 to reform U.S. schools. Under the legislation, “adequate yearly progress” (AYP) goals accelerate every three years. The act aims to have 100 percent of children achieve a set level of academic proficiency by 2014 — a goal that some local principals argue is unrealistic.
“It’s kind of like the Lake Wobegon goal,” said Bristol Elementary Co-Principal Jill Mackler, referring to Garrison Keillor’s “Prairie Home Companion” radio serial about a fictional Minnesota community where “all the women are strong, all the men are good looking, and all the children are above average.”
“It’s very lovely but it was never a realistic goal,” Mackler said.
Schools that do not meet AYP targets for two consecutive years enter a “school improvement” category, and schools that miss the benchmarks for four years in a row are flagged for “corrective action.”
Among local schools, only Otter Valley has been tapped for corrective action based on its NECAP scores — meaning that Principal Dana Cole-Levesque must attend monthly meetings with administrators from other struggling schools, and teachers are required to participate in professional development programs tailored to the school’s needs.
Otter Valley is one of 31 schools in Vermont now under a corrective action plan.
Despite the classification, Cole-Levesque said he was encouraged by the school’s results on the NECAP, which show improvement. Students receiving free or reduced-price lunches, a marker for children from economically distressed families, made significant gains in their test scores, and the school’s graduation rate — 92 percent — comes in 20 percent higher than the No Child Left Behind goal. Both reading and math scores school-wide were up from previous years, though math scores still fell below NCLB standards.
“We recognize that it’s an uphill struggle, but we feel like we’re making progress,” Cole-Levesque said.
At Bristol Elementary, Mackler agreed the NECAP scores and AYP goals provide one way to measure that sort of progress.
For example, Bristol’s NECAP results show that students receiving free or reduced-price lunches improved their reading scores this year — though students in this category still fell below AYP goals in both reading and math. The school’s population as a whole, on the other hand, exceeded the No Child Left Behind standards.
Mackler said that the scores show that the school is making some progress in helping limited-income students close the achievement gap, but that more work remains to be done.
Best agreed with Mackler and Cole-Levesque that there are upsides to the NECAP exams and No Child Left Behind assessments. Conceptually, she said, she likes No Child Left Behind, because it places an emphasis on helping all students achieve personal success.
But Best said that at the supervisory union level, and at Shoreham Elementary, administrators and teachers are already committed to that goal — and the way No Child Left Behind plays out is, in fact, counterproductive.
“I’ve found that it’s been more of a distraction at this point,” Best said, referring to the NECAP tests that roll out in January every year and the annual No Child Left Behind AYP updates. “I think the first reaction is to sort of focus on blame and put individuals or groups on the defensive rather than allowing us to focus on how to move things forward.”
Best said the NECAP results and No Child Left Behind yearly progress reports also can be discouraging to teachers who are working to make changes in the classroom. Because the tests are just given once, at the beginning of the year, and the results aren’t released until several months later, she argued that the NECAP doesn’t paint a valid picture of what is happening in the classroom.
Instead, Shoreham teachers use more frequent exams — some administered at the beginning, middle, and end of the school year — to track students’ progress.
“That’s really what can help us guide the day-to-day decisions,” Best said.
This is not to say that Best, Mackler or Cole-Levesque want to see assessments like the NECAP evaporate.
“I like having these results. I like to know how we’re doing, from this data and from other data. I don’t want the data to disappear,” Mackler said.
But Mackler would like to see some changes made to the program. Currently, every student is required to take the NECAP exam, even students with special needs who have been placed on individual education plans.
“I don’t believe in frustrating children when one already knows in advance — because that’s the definition of the special ed program — that they’re not going to be able to meet the standard,” Mackler said.
And Mackler said it’s important that more funding be in place to help schools bring in technical support, consultants and the resources administrators need to make “deep change.” The comprehensive school reform grant that Bristol Elementary received a few years ago enabled the school to put together a “responsive classroom” in a relatively short period of time — but that sort of funding isn’t available anymore, Mackler said.
Now, school administrators, teachers’ unions and parents across the country are waiting to see whether President Barack Obama and Education Secretary Arne Duncan will change No Child Left Behind. In the meantime the economic stimulus package is expected to include more money for schools that aren’t meeting No Child Left Behind goals.
Until the system changes, local administrators warned that the assessments should be considered with a grain of salt.
“These are our scores, and we work with them closely and glean as much information as we can from them,” Mackler said. “We do take them seriously, because they are one measure of the progress we are making as a school. They are not the only measure, but they are one measure.”
“It’s not the be all and end all,” Cole-Levesque said.
More information about individual school and district AYP performance can be found at the Vermont Department of Education Web site at www.education.vt.gov.