Educators: Tests missing the mark

ADDISON COUNTY — According to the Vermont Department of Education’s late March release of its 2011 Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP) report, 72 percent of Vermont schools — including 13 of 25 schools in Addison County and Brandon — failed to meet performance targets.
But officials from area supervisory unions say that these benchmarks are missing the point.
“It’s a waste of time,” said John Castle, superintendent of the Rutland Northeast Supervisory Union. “I think the whole system should be thrown out.”
AYP determinations are a set of mandated standardized testing benchmarks established by the federal No Child Left Behind Act in 2001. In Vermont, a school’s progress is calculated based on its students’ performance on the New England Common Assessment Program (NECAP) test, administered in reading and math in grades three through eight and grade 11.
After two years of missing AYP targets, a school enters “school improvement.” After two years of school improvement, a school enters “corrective action,” which requires a school to regularly report back to the state concerning progress, and to work with state-appointed consultants to boost students’ reading and writing skills.
But even when a school is steadily improving its testing scores, it will not necessarily ever meet AYP targets, since the targets are set to increase across the board every three years until the year 2014 — when schools are expected to meet the target of 100 percent proficiency among their students.
Castle said that in the case of Otter Valley Union High School, which is entering its fourth year of corrective action, there’s no failure to improve — it’s just a case of how much improvement is possible in any one year.
“Since four years ago, we’ve seen steady growth,” he said. “We’ve seen, in some cases, actual substantial growth, and we’re proud of that.”
Rather, said Castle, it’s a broken system that fails to reward those improvements, or any of the other indicators of a school’s achievement, like graduation rate, SAT scores, and advanced placement classes.
“(AYP targets) don’t validate the improvements that are happening … so in some ways, it becomes demoralizing when you look at the targets,” he said.
He compared the targets to a race with a set finish line and a goal time.
“Now say that the finish line is 100 yards further. Your time is not going to be shorter,” he said.
This year marked the last AYP target increase before 2014, and accordingly, the percentage of schools that failed to meet the benchmarks jumped from 31 percent in 2010 to 72 percent this year. Nationally, an estimated 82 percent of schools will not make AYP targets this year.
These targets, according to Vermont Education Commissioner Armando Vilaseca, are simply not attainable.
“We knew when No Child Left Behind was passed … that the goal was unrealistic,” said Vilaseca. “It set states and schools up for failure.”
Addison Northwest Supervisory Union Superintendent Tom O’Brien echoed other school officials.
“I think we’ll get to 100 percent of schools not meeting AYP before we get to 100 percent proficiency,” O’Brien said.
In his supervisory union, Vergennes Union High School is in its first year of corrective action, and Vergennes Union Elementary School is in year two of school improvement. Teachers and students have worked hard in response, O’Brien said, whether or not targets are realistic.
“Across the board, it’s been a motivation for us,” he said. “We recognize what the challenge is, and we’re making progress.”
AYP results are calculated not only on a school-by-school basis, but also taking into account different groups within a school. Thus, schools looking to improve standardized testing progress must hone in on the achievement of four potentially disadvantaged subgroups: economically disadvantaged students, special education students, English language learners, and students from major racial and ethnic groups.
“Quite often in the past, schools were successful because a number of their kids (did well,)” said Vilaseca. “(No Child Left Behind) has forced us to assess how we’re doing with all kids, and set up systems that help schools address some of those areas.”
But according to Vermont’s interpretation of the law, a school that has fewer than 40 qualifying members of a subgroup does not need to meet targets in that subgroup, since statistics calculated using fewer results are not necessarily reliable. Accordingly, many smaller schools only report their overall results, not the results within subgroups.
O’Brien said that this gives the smaller schools in the state an advantage on paper, since they must measure up to fewer targets than the larger schools do.
“I think it’s fair to say that if we were able to look at the (subgroups), all of our schools would not meet AYP,” said O’Brien.
Still, the establishment of a standardized testing system has had its advantages.
“I put no stock in the AYP system, but that’s not to say that I don’t value the data we gather through the NECAP assessments,” said Castle. “It’s incredibly important for us to address the supervisory union systemically.”
Janice Willey, associate superintendent at Addison Central Supervisory Union, said AYP determinations have helped to focus district resources toward the math and literacy programs. The district has a math specialist who spends time working in the elementary schools, and ACSU is devoting some federal dollars to work with the University of Vermont’s Bridging Project, which works with teachers and schools to improve literacy.
Right now, Mary Hogan Elementary School is in its first year of corrective action, while Bridport Central School and Shoreham Elementary School are both in year two of school improvement. Middlebury Union High School and Middlebury Union Middle School did not make AYP targets for the first time this year.
Targets aside, Willey said that the data gathered from testing has value when taken in combination with local assessments that the schools in the district do more regularly.
“It is what it is,” she said. “I think the spirit behind NECAP is a very reasonable one, but AYP is very flawed.”
One of the goals of No Child Left Behind was to establish a nationwide system of educational accountability. In that respect, said Vilaseca, it did begin to accomplish its goals.
“No Child Left Behind was the first time we could look at our country and compare (school systems),” said Vilaseca.
But he said the fact remains that AYP results, which look only at progress and not at the basic quality of education, are skewed.
“Right now it’s hard because every state uses different assessments,” he said.
The NECAP test is currently used in Maine, New Hampshire, Rhode Island, and Vermont. But as No Child Left Behind comes closer to its expiration date and the Obama administration expresses interest in an overhaul of the system, Vilaseca said states are eyeing new nationwide standards.
Vermont has already joined 42 other states in signing onto the Common Core Standards, which aims to establish a common set of mathematics and literacy achievement standards, along with a common set of assessments.
Since Vermont’s education system ranks highly in most state-by-state views, Vilaseca said that a common set of assessments will give a clearer picture of the state’s education system as it measures up to other states.
But Castle said that the measurement system is fundamentally flawed, putting focus on teaching to the standardized testing rather than on overall academic achievement.
“We’re making decisions by rules tied to money,” he said. “If Vermont were more autonomous of the federal guidelines, we would do better.”
He cited a push for portfolio-based assessments in the state, which took a backseat following the establishment of federally mandated standardized testing.
“Our schools are not failing — they are better today than they have ever been,” said Castle. “It’s important to see that we can’t solely judge the worth of our schools based on these (standardized tests).”
Vilaseca also emphasized that standardized testing is not a comprehensive picture of a school’s quality, and not the only aspect of a school that the state keeps tabs on.
“This is one snapshot of one assessment of how our schools are doing,” he said. “We collect a lot of other data.”
For example, Vilaseca said that 86 percent of Vermont high schoolers graduate after four years, and 91 percent do so after five years. The national four-year graduation rate in 2007 was 68.8 percent, according to a 2010 report released by Education Week.
And Vilaseca emphasized that a push for higher academic standards in the state doesn’t just include testable subjects like math and literacy — it also includes extracurricular activities, a broad base of subject matter, advanced placement classes and student aspiration to postsecondary education.
“We want to make sure that schools are not dropping art, not dropping their P.E. classes,” he said.
Ultimately, Vilaseca said, it is important to view the AYP results as just one aspect of a multi-faceted subject.
“We have an outstanding education system,” he said. “What we don’t want is for parents to lose faith in their schools.”
Reporter Andrea Suozzo is at [email protected].

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