ADDISON COUNTY — Last week’s release of the fall 2011 New England Common Assessment Program (NECAP) scores had state and local educators eyeing a decidedly mixed batch of results.
Locally, Vergennes Union High School was the only high school to post significant increases in proficiency in all four subjects tested over 2010 results. Others achieved proficiency levels that, for the most part, declined or stayed the same.
Statewide, results also remained fairly stable compared to 2010.
Tom O’Brien, superintendent of Addison Northwest Supervisory Union — which includes VUHS — said the numbers for his schools do tell him something about the levels of instruction, but he cautioned against reading too much into the scores.
“We always look for progress and growth ... but we wouldn’t only look at one test to draw conclusions,” he said. “These tests tend to be barometers, but I don’t think they’re the be all and end all of this discussion.”
Janice Willey, associate superintendent of Addison Central Supervisory Union, said Middlebury Union High School’s proficiency numbers — most of which are above the statewide average — are useful measurements of progress. One especially useful breakdown of the results is by socio-economic demographic.
“Vermont is a pretty homogenous state, but our real diversity is our poverty,” she said.
Students who receive support in paying for lunch consistently score lower on the NECAP tests, but Willey said knowing that enables schools to give those students extra attention in the classroom. And it’s yielding results, she said, as NECAP scores of students from low-income households have been drawing closer to those of the overall student population in a number of subjects and grade levels.
Increases in year-to-year scores aside, however, Vermont Education Commissioner Armando Vilaseca last week singled out high school math and science instruction as needing attention. In a press release he noted that proficiency levels are at 30 percent in science and 36 percent in math among Vermont’s 11th graders.
One concern is that not all students are receiving geometry and algebra instruction before they reach the 11th grade NECAP tests, which require knowledge of those subjects, according to Gail Taylor, director of the research, standards and assessment division at the Vermont Department of Education.
The state is conducting a survey of schools to find out whether high school students are reaching grade-level requirements before they reach the NECAP tests in order to evaluate whether schools are adequately teaching to these subjects.
Still, some questioned the validity of those state standards used to determine proficiency levels. Bill Mathis, managing director of the National Education Policy Center and Goshen resident, said the educational standards that the state uses to evaluate the NECAP tests don’t accurately reflect student learning.
Mathis cited results from the National Assessment of Educational Process (NAEP), which each year assesses randomly selected students in fourth through eighth grade in schools throughout the country. According to Department of Education statistics, Vermont students routinely score well above the national average in reading and math, the core subjects tested on the NAEP, performing within the top four or five states in the country most years.
Despite that, NECAP proficiency levels hover in the 30-40 percent range for math and science, and stand at 48 percent for writing and 73 percent for reading.
“When you do your comparisons over the years using a proficiency point that is set very high, there’s not very much improvement,” said Mathis, who was a Vermont superintendent for three decades.
For example, he said, take any given group of people and the majority would probably not be able to jump high enough to get over a four-foot hurdle. From year to year, results would be similar no matter how rigorously members of that group trained. Take a slightly lower hurdle, however, and Mathis said one would get a better picture of improvement over time.
“When NECAP says there’s no improvement, they’re looking at this very high point,” he said.
Taylor agreed that Vermont sets a high achievement bar when one looks at the NAEP testing, but she said it’s a choice that the state has made.
“It’s a balance between rigorous and achievable,” she said. “Some states have set standards that are very low. (The NAEP tests) give us some credibility that ours are rigorous.”
Still, the Department of Education, in collaboration with 30 other states, is preparing to transition its individual state standards to the “Common Core” standards, which Taylor said are even more rigorous. The full rollout in the 2014-2015 school year will replace NECAP math and reading tests with tests known as SMARTER Balanced Assessments, computer-based testing that will provide teachers with instant scores. The standards will also incorporate interim assessments that teachers can use to gauge student performance throughout the year.
Mathis said there are two very different discourses regarding education in the state. While there is a movement in the Legislature to increase hands-on and individualized learning options in secondary schools, and schools are still governed by independent, local school boards, the Department of Education is moving toward a more strictly defined curriculum along with the new testing standards.
“On the one hand you have the state saying we need to standardize curriculum,” he said. “On the other hand, the Legislature is saying we need to diversify.”
THE REAL GOALS
Mathis said too heavy a focus on testing puts educators in danger of losing sight of the real goals.
“As defined by the Vermont Constitution, the purpose of education is to encourage virtue and prevent vice,” said Mathis. “When we get focused on testing by itself, the curriculum gets very narrow.”
Taylor said the two separate movements don’t necessarily contradict each other — in fact, she said, the Common Core curriculum is more focused on applying knowledge and laying the foundation of skills that students will need, whether they are headed for college or career upon graduation.
“Our goal is to ensure that students have the best possible preparation for whatever they meet next,” said Taylor. “Standards are very important in supporting relevant education.”
Ultimately, however, all agreed that tests are only one measure of education, and don’t provide a comprehensive measure of the school or its students. For that, educators must take into account many other factors, many of which are difficult to sum up with one number.
“(NECAP) tells us how well our kids are performing on that particular test at that particular time,” said ANwSU’s O’Brien.
Reporter Andrea Suozzo is at firstname.lastname@example.org.