Mount Abe fights poor state ranking

BRISTOL — Administrators and some community members at Mount Abraham Union High School are balking at the school’s recent appearance on a list of the state’s 10 “persistently low-achieving” schools.
The designation means Mount Abe could qualify for as much as $600,000 in federal school improvement grants, and the school board voted last week to move ahead with an application for the funding. Meanwhile, school officials have also been quick to point out that the list of low achieving schools paints an inaccurate, oversimplified picture of Mount Abe’s record of achievement.
Addison Northeast Supervisory Union Superintendent Evelyn Howard called the news an “attack” on public education and the Mount Abe community in a letter to students, faculty, staff and taxpayers in the wake of the mid-March designation.
“Informed by our own personal experiences and observations and the experiences of students, we know the Mount Abraham community to be hard working, totally dedicated to the interests of students and making great efforts to reach all students,” Howard wrote. “It is hard work and we have miles to go to meet our own expectations for ensuring greater success for all students. To have our community represented in this manner is unconscionable.”
Howard was quick to add that the school has a lot of work to do: Making sure that students succeed is at the top of the schools list of priorities, she said in an interview this week.
But she also expressed her support for the school, citing the positive feedback from many recent graduates as an example of the ways in which Mount Abe is succeeding.
“We’ve got a lot of people doing the right things,” Howard said. “I have complete confidence that the experiences that students get here is multifaceted and provides lots of opportunities.”
The Vermont Department of Education (DOE) compiled the list of “low achieving” schools, but the requirement came from the federal level. Ranking schools was a prerequisite for states that wanted to receive an installment of federal stimulus funding.
The methodology for ranking schools fell to individual states. In Vermont’s case, schools were considered for the list if students didn’t meet “adequate yearly progress” goals on standardized tests, and if schools received or qualified to receive federal funding to serve low-income students.
Weight was also given to the scores on the New England Common Assessment Program (NECAP) tests for children who typically struggle the most on the reading and math tests: those enrolled in the free or reduced lunch program, who have disabilities, or who are recent immigrants. In order to qualify for the list, schools had to have a certain number of students who fall into those categories.
Mount Abe was one of just a few high schools in the state deemed eligible for the list because of the socioeconomic make-up of the elementary schools feeding into the high school. (Mount Abe does not receive federal funds based on socioeconomic populations, but many of the elementary schools in the supervisory union do.)
The Department of Education then compared NECAP scores among the qualifying schools, and devised its ranking. Unfortunately, Howard pointed out, high schools statewide generally score lower on the NECAP than elementary schools — so side-by-side comparisons of these scores worked against high schools.
Howard began sifting through statewide NECAP scores shortly after Mount Abe cropped up on the list of underachieving schools last month, and came to a startling realization: Mount Abe’s scores were by no means among the lowest in the state.
“How are we so different from anyone else?” she asked.
NECAP scores across the state paint an altogether different picture of achievement. In 2007, Mount Abe 11th graders scored, on average, better than students at 13 other high schools in the state; only six other high schools boasted better average math scores that year.
Meanwhile, Mount Abe students at a socioeconomic disadvantage — identified by their participation in the free and reduced lunch program — also scored better, on average, than students at many other Vermont high schools. In 2007, these students outscored similar student populations at nine other schools on the math exam. Topping the list of schools with the worst achievement record for this population in 2007 was Champlain Valley Union High School.
Howard also discovered that schools have different “yearly progress” goals to meet, which means the bar is set higher at some schools — like Mount Abe — than it is at others. Under the federal No Child Left Behind program, however, all Vermont students are expected to pass the NECAP exam by 2014. At that point, Howard said, it’s likely that all Vermont schools will fail to meet the “adequate yearly progress” goals that landed Mount Abe on the list of schools eligible for federal funding.
Unfortunately, the federal funding comes with some strings attached, and with a fair amount of coercion.
“At least five schools identified in this process were notified that all of the other schools receiving grants would be punished and as much as $2 million would be withheld from everyone if they refused to take the grant money offered and refused to subscribe to the federal requirements as a result of this ranking,” Howard wrote in her letter to the community. “The level of federal intrusion, mandates and intimidation has risen to a frightening magnitude.”
Parents of students at Mount Abe, as well as other community members, have stepped forward to voice support for the school in the wake of the news about Mount Abe’s “persistently low achieving” status.
In some cases, supporters have also expressed skepticism about the merit of what they called a “dubious” ranking.
Starksboro resident Chris Brady, a former Mount Abe school board member, was particularly concerned. Brady works as the librarian at Vergennes Union High School, and follows the national debate about education reform closely.
In Brady’s opinion, the DOE “kowtowed” to the federal government on the ranking requirement, and he expressed disappointment that neither Vermont’s commissioner of education nor the state’s Congressional delegation has stepped up to defend the schools ID’d as low achievers. The federal requirement to identify these low achieving schools just doesn’t make sense in a small, rural state like Vermont, Brady said.
“When a designation like this comes back down from the U.S. Department of Education and the Vermont Department of Education … it just doesn’t make any sense,” he said. “It just doesn’t apply to a place like Vermont.”
Howard agreed.
“Other small states are certainly struggling with this issue,” she said.
Brady also pointed out, like Howard, that the designation was based on a small sample of students and limited testing data — key points he thinks undermines the credibility of the list.
“There’s just no credible evidence in place to make that determination,” Brady said. “Let’s get a collection of measures here to determine whether we think this a persistently low achieving school … Let’s come up with a credible assessment to do that. The standardized tests just aren’t a credible assessment.”
He likened the designation to an oversimplified diagnosis at the doctor’s office. If a patient headed in with a broken foot, the doctor wouldn’t term the patient a “defective human being.”
“If you want to do an assessment of a school, it has to be a holistic assessment,” Brady said. “We need a lot of diagnostics in order to do a credible evaluation.”
Some of those other “diagnostics” bode well for Mount Abe.
A preliminary report from the DOE shows that 90 percent of Mount Abe students in the 2008-2009 cohort graduated last May. While slightly lower than the 93 percent statewide graduation rate average, the national graduation rate was just 74 percent in 2007.
Follow-up surveys administered to students after graduation show general support among alumni for the school. In a survey taken by 82 percent of the graduating class of 2008, 89 percent agreed or strongly agreed that they’d received a good education at Mount Abe. Seventy-two percent agreed or strongly agreed that “my high school helped me learn the skills I needed to be successful in work or postsecondary school.”
Of students who went on to two- or four-year degree programs, 22 percent felt better prepared for their studies in their first year of college than their fellow students, and 63 percent felt equally prepared as their peers.
Parents are also, in many cases, supportive of the school.
Beth Hahr, a Starksboro resident with three students at the school this year, said she was initially shocked by the news that Mount Abe had been singled out as low achieving.
“It was discouraging,” Hahr said. She was particularly dismayed after hearing on the evening news that the school, if it wanted to receive federal funding, might have to pursue a radical change — including potentially shutting the school down, or reopening as a charter school.
But a day or two later Hahr began to wonder if the “low achieving” designation couldn’t play out in Mount Abe’s favor in the end.
“Getting some federal money to write a restructuring plan might be a good thing,” she said. “We should be looking at what’s going well, what’s not going well, and maybe using money to work on the things that are working.”
Hahr is supportive of first-year principal Andy Kepes, and applauds Kepes for his work to boost school spirit and engage students through alternative education initiatives like the new Pathways program. With her oldest child set to graduate in two and a half months, and two more coming up the ranks, Hahr said she’s pleased with the education that her children are receiving at Mount Abe.
“These teachers are absolutely paying attention to my kids. I feel like that’s what’s really important,” Hahr said. “I think it’s discouraging for the school and the staff to hear this news (about the ranking) and to have people talking about it around town. We’re the same school we were a month ago, and I feel like the school is on the right track.”
Reporter Kathryn Flagg is at [email protected].

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