Oct. 27, 2011
By Steven Frank
What a difference a year makes.
In 2010, the percentage of Williston eighth-graders who scored proficient or higher on the New England Common Assessment Program science test was 26 – a 10-percent drop from ’09. They scored lower than the state average, all of the other Chittenden South Supervisory Union school districts, and neighboring towns Richmond and Essex.
It was the second consecutive year in which Williston declined in eighth grade science proficiency.
There won’t be a third. Williston eighth-graders scored 43-percent proficiency or higher in the standardized test, a 60 percent increase over last year. The results, released by the Vermont Department of Education on Sept. 30, also show that Williston is more competitive with nearby districts. Essex dropped to 31 percent (from 53 in ’10) and Williston scored two percentage points higher than Hinesburg. Williston also scored above the state average, which was 29 percent.
Inside of those statistics, the number of special education students who scored proficient or higher nearly doubled from last year, increasing from 7 percent to 13. The percentage of those who scored partially proficient skyrocketed from 36 to 56.
The test combines scores from multiple choice and short-answer questions with results from an inquiry task that requires students to analyze and interpret findings from an actual experiment.
“I’m incredibly pleased,” said Williston District Principal Walter Nardelli. “The teachers took this seriously. There was a concentrated effort on their part and it shows in the results.”
Nardelli pointed to several factors behind the improvement. Assessment science probes were implemented last year, which enabled teachers to gauge how well students understood concepts. Science journals, previously not mandatory, are now in every K-8 classroom, according to Nardelli. Coordinators from other schools also came in to provide training sessions with Williston science teachers. In addition, more time was allocated to science instruction.
“We needed to make sure science was a priority,” said Nardelli, who oversees Allen Brook (kindergarten to second grade) and Williston Central (third to eighth grade) schools. “It’s a system, not just one grade.”
At the fourth-grade level, Williston scored 66 percent proficient or higher for the second consecutive year. Comparatively, Williston fared better than Essex but trailed every other CSSU district. Charlotte led the way with 80-percent proficiency or higher.
CVU CLIMBS SEVEN PERCENTAGE POINTS
After 42-percent proficiency or higher for two straight years, 11th grade students at Champlain Valley Union High School improved to 49 percent.
Adam Bunting, a house director at CVU who is also in charge of the school’s science curriculum, believes increases in motivation and comfort helped create better test results. Unlike an SAT test, which can help students get into the colleges of their choice, there was no incentive for taking the NECAPs. Bunting said the school administration taught children about “the power of community perception,”—that there was a lot of pressure on their teachers for them to do well.
“We told them that we could lose our ability to offer the curriculum that best suits them. That’s not an easy thing to explain but the students have been very thoughtful,” said Bunting, who added that the school also threw an ice cream party for the students.
CVU also placed the students’ science teachers in the classroom when they took the tests. Before, proctors administered the exams.
“It made more sense to have the students with the teachers that they are familiar with day in and day out,” Bunting said. “It shows the students we care. There is a comfort level. You’re nervous taking these.”
According to Bunting, other changes this year included science teachers spending more time in their classes preparing students for the test, administering the test in one day instead of over three and not giving the students homework during the week of the test.
STATE AVERAGES FEATURE LITTLE CHANGE
This is the fourth year in which Vermont public high school students in fourth, eighth and 11th grades took the NECAP exams — created in collaboration with Rhode Island and New Hampshire.
At the fourth grade level, the Vermont average of those achieving proficiency or higher dropped one percent from last year (54 to 53). Eighth-graders scored 29 percent, the same as last year, and 11th-graders improved three percentage points (31).