By CYRUS LEVESQUE AND JOHN S. McCRIGHT
ADDISON COUNTY — Most area high schools slightly outperformed the state averages in a batch of standardized reading and math test results released by the Vermont Department of Education last Wednesday.
In general, area elementary schools scored about on par with their peers across the state in a release of reading comprehension test results on the same day.
Educators gleaned a few specific lessons from the their initial look at the test results other than that they seem to be focusing their instructional efforts on some of the right things.
In results from the New Standards Reference Exams (NSRE), which were given to 10th graders in March, Mount Abraham Union High School students met the standard at four percentage points above the state average in the Math Concepts category, eight points below the state average in Writing Effectiveness, and within two points either way on the other five math and reading categories.
“With one exception, our results mirrored the statewide results,” said Nancy Cornell, assistant superintendent of Addison Northeast Supervisory Union.
Cornell said that the main message MAUHS took away from the scores was that they provided was proof of weaknesses they already suspected were in need of improvement. “They confirmed that some of the things we have been working hard on are the right things to be working on,” she said.
Beyond that, though, Cornell said that the test results did not have simple and easy lessons for the Bristol high school, and it would take more time to figure out how their efforts have been going. “We’re seeing a little bit of change over time, but not much,” Cornell said. “It’s too early to know whether our efforts will pay off, but I hope they will.”
Across the state, 51 percent of 7,414 students who took the NSRE met or exceeded the standards in reading analysis and interpretation, the highest score since the tests began in 1999. Fifty-six percent passed Basic Reading Understanding, and half met the Writing Effectiveness standard. On the math side, 42 percent of Vermont 10th graders met the Math Problem Solving standard and 66 percent passed math skills.
Only one category has shown steady and consistent increases in statewide averages: Mathematical Concepts, which progressed from 33 percent of students meeting or exceeding the standards in 1999 to 46 percent in 2006.
Only one category has no improvement: Writing Conventions. Some 76 percent of Vermont students met the state standard in that category in 1999 while this year 74 percent met or exceeded the standard.
Like at MAUHS, 10th graders at Vergennes Union High School scored fairly close to the state averages in most categories, although about 15 percent more than the state average passed the Math Concepts and Math Problem Solving standards.
Tenth graders at Otter Valley Union High School varied most notably from the mean in Writing Effectiveness, where 23 percent fewer students met the standard than the statewide average, and Math Skills, where the spread was 13 percent.
Middlebury Union High School Principal Bill Lawson was generally pleased with his school’s results. “I think we did fairly well,” Lawson said.
MUHS’s score dropped two points from last year in Math Problem Solving, but other than that its scores increased in every area. “We had targeted certain areas for specific improvements, and we did make those improvements,” Lawson said.
The story was similar for county second graders who took the Developmental Reading Assessment (DRA) tests. The state said 85 percent of Vermont second graders met or exceeded the expectations on that test, with Addison County elementary schools meeting or slightly exceeding that number. (Complete results of the 2006 NSREs and DRAs can be found at http://education.vermont.gov/new/html/pgm_assessment/data.html.)
The DRA is an oral exam on reading ability and comprehension given to second graders on a one-on-one basis. Across Vermont, 73 percent of students met or surpassed expectations in 1999, the first year of the test, and scores have inched up steadily since then.
“I’m pleased. You always want to see your kids do well, and ours did,” said Vergennes Union Elementary School Principal Sandy Bassett. At VUES, 87 percent of second graders met the DRA standards, up from 82 percent in 2005.
In the Rutland Northeast Supervisory Union — which encompasses schools in the Addison County towns of Whiting, Leicester and Goshen, as well as Brandon and several other Rutland County towns — second graders met the DRA standard at a rate of about 83 percent.
“That’s a very high pass rate, but that’s a really easy test,” said RNeSU Superintendent William Mathis. “We’re pleased with them and they show progress. It doesn’t give us any reason to be concerned.”
But Mathis had reservations about the test.
“The trouble with the DRA is everyone passes, or at least 80 percent do,” Mathis said. “It doesn’t help us much.”
At the Addison Central School 100 percent of the 17 second graders who took the DRA reading test met the standard, more than half passed with honors. Orwell Village School saw only 62 percent meet the DRA early reading standard, but only 13 second graders were tested.
But Mathis pointed out that there is nothing in the tests to show if such variations are caused by differences in instruction or differences in the cohort of students moving through a school.
Mathis prefers to show scores from a single school from year to year. He says that’s what Rutland Northeast schools do when they make their submissions for annual town reports.
“You could use gross scores to show how we are doing against ourselves,” he said.
That way, people can see if what the school is doing to improve teaching is working. And schools are doing things to improve instruction. In Rutland Northeast, schools spent last year focused on helping every teacher teach reading.
“We figured everybody teaches reading in some way, even the art and (physical education) teachers,” Mathis said.
As part of this year’s focus on math education, schools in that district have reinstituted math portfolios, where each student creates a collection of their work to track progress.
The DRAs and the NSREs are different tests given in different formats, so some difference in results is expected. Even so, the difference in scores between the two tests is large: the statewide average results for the NSRE categories of Reading Analysis/Interpretation and Reading: Basic Understanding are 51 percent and 56 percent, respectively, a full 30 points below the average on the DRAs.
Jill Remick of the Department of Education thought that was partially because of a lack of attention to reading comprehension in high school. “By the time they get to high school it’s sort of assumed that they know how to read, so they aren’t really tested on it in school as much,” she said.
She also suggested that the level of interest of the students and engagement in the test was also important. High school-age students may be less interested in school, she said, especially on a test that won’t go on their record or affect their grades in any classes.
This was the last set of results of the NSREs, because the test is being discontinued. Students next year will simply take the New England Common Assessment Program (NECAP), tests administered annually during the first three weeks of October. The NECAP is also the test used to evaluate school performance and progress under the requirements of the No Child Left Behind Act.
Cornell said one thing apparent about the results from throughout the state was the imbalance in scores between students in various groups, such as male and female students or students from economically disadvantaged households. “We’re very concerned about the gaps, we’re working very explicitly on the gaps,” she said. “The socio-economic status gaps and the gender gaps are things we’re addressing.”
“(But) I know these results don’t tell us as accurately as we would like about the gaps,” she added. Cornell said the number of students in a free-and-reduced-priced lunch program, a common way of estimating poverty in schools, was less accurate in high school than in younger grades, because some eligible students don’t enroll for various reasons.
Remick also said a student’s home environment was very important to their performance in school. “Whether it’s parents reading to their kids or just making sure they get breakfast, it really can make a difference,” she said.
Mathis said the lesson to be learned from some of the state-mandated tests is clear and simple.
“Schools with poorer populations and less-educated parents score lower,” Mathis said. “It’s a problem with testing in general.
“Until we as a society decide to do something about that there is little schools can do on our own,” he continued. “We only have the kids for 20 percent of their waking hours each year. There are limits to what can be done.”