NECAP science tests prove difficult10/02/08

Scores low across Vermont, but Williston, CVU above state averages

Oct. 2, 2008

By Tim Simard

Observer staff

Students in the Williston School District scored above the Vermont state average on the New England Common Assessment Program science tests, according to the Vermont Department of Education, but scores were still lower than state officials had hoped.

Champlain Valley Union High School also scored above state averages, even though less than half the school’s students met proficiency levels.

This was the first year Vermont schools were given the science NECAPs, a statewide assessment program taken by students in grades four, eight and 11, and the DOE released the scores last week.

Michael Hock, the DOE’s educational assessment director, said one of the reasons Vermont scores were low was due to differing curriculums.

“Vermont schools are in different places in aligning themselves with state standards,” Hock said.

Because of the difference in scores, Hock said conclusions should not be drawn in regards to the quality of teaching in the state. New Hampshire and Rhode Island schools also took the science NECAP. Vermont and New Hampshire scores were similar, and students in both states scored higher than Rhode Island students. The tests were taken in the spring.

NECAP exams in reading and math are also given each fall in grades three through eight and grade 11. Grades five, eight and 11 also take writing NECAP exams in the fall. The tests are given to measure standards set by the federal No Child Left Behind Act.

NECAP scores are split into four levels: proficient with distinction, proficient, partially proficient and substantially below proficient.

Elementary and middle school scores

Williston District Principal Walter Nardelli said the science scores would serve as a “benchmark for the future” and was pleased to see Williston had scored higher than the state average and on par with nearby schools. He said the administration would analyze the scores and see how they could be improved in the future.

“Our goal is to have every student be successful and we will work toward that goal,” Nardelli said in an e-mail to the Observer.

Williston scored above the state average in grades four and eight, but not always as strong as other schools in the Chittenden South Supervisory Union. For grade four in Williston, 59 percent of students tested proficient or higher, as opposed to 48 percent of students across Vermont. More locally, Shelburne also had 59 percent of students score proficient or higher, whereas 66 percent of Hinesburg students and 77 percent of Charlotte students reached proficiency.

Of Williston’s eighth graders, 46 percent scored proficient or higher, compared to 26 percent in Vermont. Charlotte, Hinesburg and Shelburne had rates of 53 percent, 49 percent and 43 percent, respectively.

Nardelli said the amount of science instruction students receive in the house system was reflected in the higher than state average scores. He reiterated Williston meets state standards in terms of instruction time and aligns its curriculum with state expectations.

Part of last year’s school configuration debate centered on parent concerns over time spent learning science in the classroom. An internal audit determined Williston was in compliance with state standards.

“My sense is our scores reflect how we have a combination of pure science instruction along with integrated science instruction,” Nardelli said. “We teach science content and also how it applies to real life situations.”

Williston’s achievement gap persists in regards to economically disadvantaged students and their peers. In grade four, 46 percent of low-income students scored proficient or higher, as opposed to 61 percent of their peers. In grade eight, 12 percent of low-income students scored proficient or higher, compared to 50 percent of their peers.

Statewide, 31 percent of economically disadvantaged students in grade four scored proficient or higher. In grade eight, 12 percent of economically disadvantaged students scored proficient or higher.

High school numbers

Champlain Valley Union High students in grade 11 scored higher than the state average — 40 percent of CVU’s juniors scored proficient or higher, compared to 25 percent of all Vermont juniors.

Other area high schools scored comparably to Champlain Valley Union. At Essex, Mount Mansfield Union and South Burlington High Schools, juniors scored proficient or higher at rates of 46 percent, 39 percent and 43 percent, respectively.

Champlain Valley Union’s economically disadvantaged students performed at the state average, with 12 percent scoring proficient or higher.

Champlain Valley Union Principal Sean McMannon said although some of the results were lower than he hoped, it was the only the first year.

“I’m OK with the results,” he said.

While NECAP tests provide important information, McMannon said they were just one “piece of the puzzle” in terms of assessment and should only be considered part of a bigger picture.

“The danger sometimes in these is teaching to the test, and we do not do that at CVU,” McMannon said.