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More local schools not up to NCLB standards

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By CYRUS LEVESQUE

ADDISON COUNTY — A number of Addison County elementary schools were included on a watch list released by the Vermont Department of Education late last week.

While most schools in the county and in the state did not make the list, which flags schools that did not make Adequate Yearly Progress as required by the No Child Left Behind Act, a Department of Education official said the list will likely grow in coming years as NCLB standards get tougher.

Five Addison County schools were tagged as not having made Adequate Yearly Progress for the first time and two area schools entered year two of being targeted for school improvement. Vergennes Union High School was taken off the “needs improvement” list.

The local schools that were classified as “Schools in Need of Improvement” for the second year were Neshobe School and Otter Valley Union High School, both in Brandon. Every school designated as needing improvement must remain on the list for at least two years, even if improvement is demonstrated in the first year.

The Addison County schools that failed to make Adequate Yearly Progress for the first time were Bristol Elementary School, Mary Hogan Elementary School in Middlebury, Orwell Village School, Shoreham Elementary School, and Vergennes Union Elementary School.

Under the terms of NCLB, schools nationwide are required to make a certain amount of progress in the scores of their students on standardized tests. The New England Common Assessment Program (NECAP) is the standardized test used to measure the performance of Vermont students in grades three through eight.

Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP) is measured in two ways. It is partly a result of the number of students at the school as a whole who score “Proficient” or higher on the NECAP, and partly by narrowing the gaps between the school as a whole and various subgroups like minorities or the poor that generally score lower than their classmates.

Last year all but 3 percent of Vermont schools made AYP status, but the number not making AYP blossomed to 22 percent this year.

“This is probably how it’s going to go from now on,” said Jill Remick, communications director of the Vermont Department of Education. The reason for that, she said, was that this past year, for the first time, schools tested all students in grades three through eight instead of just grades four and eight.

When the students in only two grades were tested, subgroups that often fall behind their classmates’ performance would have been too small to count in many schools. A subgroup, such as a racial minority, has at least 40 students in a given school to be counted. By testing a larger group of students, though, those groups are more likely to be counted against their schools, according to Remick.

Another wrinkle in this year’s list had to do with how progress was measured. This year’s list was based on results of NECAP tests given in the fall of 2005, and they were compared to the New Standards Reference Exam (NSRE), the test that was given in 2004.

Sandy Barrett, principal of VUES, said that the NECAP tests caught his school off-guard. “We had no idea what was coming with the NECAP. We didn’t do as well as we might have,” he said.

Barrett expects to see significant improvements in the 2007 tests, after they’ve had time to digest the information, more than in the October 2005 tests.

“We will be better prepared this year than we were last year,” Barrett said.

Bill Mathis, superintendent of Rutland Northeast Supervisory Union and a critic of NCLB, said that using the tests this way means very little. “Last year we were 5’11”, and this year we weigh 170 pounds, so the question is, did we grow?” he said.

Each year, the target percentage of students scoring “Proficient” or higher increases. By 2014, Remick said, any school where 100 percent of the students have not scored proficient will be designated as not having made AYP.

According to Mathis, that feature of NCLB creates a problem. “We took the rules and made extrapolations. We applied them under low growth scenarios and we applied them under high growth scenarios, and everybody fails,” he said. “It was designed to fail.”

Mathis also said that while this set of tests was a bad idea, standardized tests in general could be valuable. “We’re very serious about test scores,” he said. “I don’t want to dismiss the importance of this, I just want them to be good measurers.”

No action is taken when a school first fails to make AYP. If a school fails to meet the goals one year but succeeds in the following two years, then it no longer receives the School in Need of Improvement designation, like VUHS. And it takes four years for a school to go from the School in Need of Improvement designation to the start of corrective action, according to Remick.

Missisquoi Valley Union High School entered corrective action in the accountability determinations just announced, and Mount Anthony Middle School and Mount Anthony Senior Union High School of Bennington were already in it.

In Vermont, when a school reaches that designation, the Department of Education responds by offering consulting services and extra assistance. “There is a school improvement team that goes to the district to recommend changes,” Remick said.

In other states, the steps taken to make improvements have been more drastic, but Remick said that Vermont’s Department of Education did not plan major interference in such schools. “In some states there have been takeovers of the school administrations of closings of schools, and that is not going to happen here.”

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