VUHS optimistic about testing after efforts in, out of classrooms

VERGENNES — Vergennes Union High School Co-principal Ed Webbley said only time will tell if the VUHS juniors did well on New England Common Assessment Program (NECAP) tests on Oct. 5, 6 and 7.
But school officials are optimistic that years of focus on improving test scores will pay off: VUHS teachers have coordinated their efforts at helping students whose classroom work has lagged, and the school sets aside time at midday to allow teachers to give extra time to students.
The school has also created what it calls “Assessment Week.” While seniors head out on an annual three-day fund-raising walk to Porter Hospital, freshmen visit colleges to give them a taste of their possible futures, and sophomores take a test known as “The Plan,” which school officials said combines practice testing with practical guidance on future careers.
As those efforts reinforce in students’ minds the importance of the looming NECAPs, they also mean a quiet school while juniors take tests — not in long rows in the school’s two gyms, but in the more comfortable surroundings of their morning meeting rooms.
By test time this month, there was a growing sense that the juniors were ready to excel, said Lee Shorey, who helps coordinate the school’s Assessment Week volunteerism and college visits.
“The morning meeting advisers really feel like this could be the class of classes with scores,” Shorey said.
Webbley is also hopeful there will be better news when scores are ultimately released.
“It appears the kids put more energy and sincerity into this test,” Webbley said. “I’m hopeful the scores will come up. We’re at the state average, anyway, but that’s not good enough.”
NECAP scores are important. VUHS did not make “Adequate Yearly Progress,” or AYP, according to federal No Child Left Behind law guidelines. Schools whose test scores do not improve for two consecutive years are put on a “School Improvement Status” list that could lead to serious state- and federally mandated consequences.
In the fall of 2008, 74 percent of VUHS juniors tested scored as proficient or proficient with distinction in reading, 64 percent reached those levels in math, and 55 percent did so in writing.
Those scores compared favorably with the 2008 state averages of 61 percent, 66 percent and 54 percent, respectively, on the three tests.
But in the fall of 2009, the VUHS juniors fared less well. Those scoring as at least proficient in the NECAP reading, math and writing tests, respectively, dropped to 67, 32 and 43 percent.
The statewide numbers were 69, 35 and 51 percent, respectively — a little better than the VUHS numbers.
Educators have argued that it is unfair to compare performances of different groups in measuring AYP. They say it would be better to look at test scores from the same group over time — students are tested in eighth and 11th grade, for example.
But Webbley said VUHS is doing its best to work with the system.
“No matter how we felt about the NECAPs, they became a fact of our life,” he said. “We had to do better on those. … But more than that, we knew (students) could do better.”
Many of the steps that VUHS officials hope will pay off are those they also believe are simply better teaching practices.
The call-back system is designed to allow a teacher to act quickly if a student is failing to grasp a concept. School officials said research shows if a student falls a day or two behind, concepts are lost for good. At VUHS, teachers who see a problem contact a student’s morning adviser, who tells the student to meet the teacher to catch up during the call-back period.
“We catch the kids who have problems in class and try to catch them in real time,” Webbley said.
VUHS also formed “data teams” that collect group and individual information to identify students who need help meeting NECAP standards. Webbley said methods include studying results of eighth-grade NECAP testing and 10th-grade Plan testing.
Students are then helped both in call-backs and the VUHS after-school program, while the school’s guidance department makes sure students don’t have gaps in courses of study in which they need attention.
“They would get math every semester … (and it) applies to English as well,” Webbley said. “It’s targeted because we are using data better.”
Webbley said VUHS is also following research showing more non-fiction writing boosts reading and writing test scores; teachers and the school’s continuing education for its faculty have focused on that theme.
Teachers have also done more of what Webbley called “vertical teaming,” working together to coordinate what is taught from fifth through 12th grade throughout VUHS and the three Addison Northwest Supervisory Union elementary schools.
That effort doesn’t mean all teachers teach the same material and courses the same way, he said, but make an effort to focus on the required standards and to evaluate students’ work in a similar manner.
“You’ve got to be teaching the same standards, because that’s what (students) are going to be tested on,” Webbley said. “Teachers are working together more than ever.”
Webbley repeated that NECAP tests are not the best way to evaluate schools, but that they do measure what students have learned, and embracing and teaching the material in the tests has value.
“We have to recognize it’s a legitimate way of helping kids learn,” he said. “But we can’t let it be the be-all and end-all. We have to teach the whole child as well.”
The other half of the equation has been creating a better testing environment and attitude.
The school’s Assessment Week started three years ago with freshmen and sophomores fanning out to perform chores for towns, schools and nonprofit groups, as well as visiting colleges and businesses.
Shorey said she and co-coordinator Roberta “Cookie” Steponaitis learned over time that plan proved to be unworkable — it was too hard to match up work with volunteers, and sometimes weather didn’t cooperate.
Now, Shorey and Steponaitis are arranging for each morning advisory to establish a relationship with one entity, and serve as needed.
“Addison County Field Days can call up not only in October, but in March, and say, ‘We need the fences painted, do you have a group?’” Shorey said. “It just made it a more natural, spontaneous, kind of thoughtful way each morning meeting could take someone on.”
During Assessment Week, now all freshmen visit colleges, and many, Shorey said, look at things differently afterward — academics may seem more important.
“We heard from graduates and seniors that they loved going to colleges early in their high school career, that it really made a difference,” she said.
The Plan reinforces for sophomores that there are important choices that lie ahead and prepares them for the NECAPs, while seniors walk for Porter, something their younger peers now look forward to. Webbley said the entire process reinforces that the tests are vital, and taking the tests is a form of community service for the juniors.
“It establishes a culture of taking these tests seriously,” he said.
Along the way, Shorey said teachers have supported and encouraged the test-takers — she will be “surprised” if scores don’t rise.
“This was a class that had been part of going to colleges as freshmen, doing service as sophomores, doing The Plan, going into the community, having all these initiatives that we’ve been building and building upon,” she said. “And almost all of them are saying, ‘We didn’t put effort in in eighth grade, but we put a lot of effort in this year.”
Webbley said another group putting in a lot of effort should be recognized.
“All these teachers have been working so hard to turn this school into … an innovative school that is heavily invested in our kids’ success,” he said. “The teachers have done an enormous amount of work in the last five years trying to turn the ship.”
Andy Kirkaldy may be reached at [email protected].

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