Despite efforts, schools struggle with achievement gap (2/18/10)

Feb. 18, 2010

By Tim Simard

Observer staff

It’s a problem that’s not going away.


    File photo
Tessa Tomasi, 11, pores over her test booklet while taking the statewide NECAP (New England Common Assessment Program) test at Williston Central School in 2006.

Williston’s economically disadvantaged and special needs students continue to struggle in key areas, as evidenced by yearly standardized test results. In recent years, the school district initiated programs to close the achievement gap between the student subgroups and their peers, but exam scores show little change.

Two weeks ago, the Vermont Department of Education released the fall 2009 New England Common Assessment Program scores. While Williston as a whole tested higher than the state average, it’s subgroups did not.

School district administrators reacted with disappointment to the news the achievement gap continues to remain. While certain individual students improved their scores from previous years, others did not or fell behind, said District Principal Walter Nardelli.

“The only thing I can say is that this is not easy work,” Nardelli said. “We would like to make some kind of improvement to show people we’re working on this and we’re serious about it.”

As required by the federal No Child Left Behind act, students in grades three through eight and grade 11 are required to take the New England Common Assessment Program tests, commonly referred to as NECAPs. The exams assess student proficiency in reading, math and writing. The tests occur each fall. Separate NECAP science exams take place in the spring. 

Not only do schools receive individual student results, but also obtain results based on key student groups.

According to the NECAP exams results, 48 percent of economically disadvantaged students tested proficient or higher in reading and 44 percent did so in math. The results represent a drop of 6 percentage points for reading and 3 percentage points for math compared to 2008 scores. Also, results are lower than state averages for the same subgroup.

In the area of special education, 25 percent of students tested proficient or higher in reading and 26 percent did so in math. Reading scores increased by 4 percentage points while math scores dropped by 1 percentage point from 2008. Results remain similar to state averages.

Ongoing problem

Since 2005, the Williston School District has failed to meet guidelines for certain student subgroups required by No Child Left Behind. The NECAPs determine whether a school satisfies these guidelines, known as Adequate Yearly Progress.

Last year, Williston failed AYP in reading and math for economically disadvantaged students on free and reduced lunch programs, as well as students on special education programs. As a result, the Department of Education deemed Williston a district needing corrective action. The department directed more funds and resources to the district. Williston started monitoring struggling students on a weekly basis to make sure they didn’t fall behind on reading and math.

Also, Williston began offering supplemental services outside of the schools for key students. As mandated by the state, the district now pays for student help at learning centers, such as the Stern Center for Language & Learning.

With the extra help the district receives, administrators believe improvements occurred despite the test results. Considering some individual student advancements, Nardelli hopes the district may finally meet AYP in reading or math. Last year, the district missed AYP by four students, he said.

“We’re really optimistic that we made some good progress,” Nardelli said.

While Williston’s scores in these subgroups remained similar to previous years or dropped slightly, it’s too early to tell if the district failed AYP for a fifth year, according to Gail Taylor, director for standards and assessments at the Department of Education.

“Of course, individual students improve, but when you look at the full number, it’s how many improved and how many did not,” Taylor said.

Taylor said AYP results for the fall 2009 exams would be ready by April.


With Williston waiting to hear about AYP results, Nardelli said the district continues to work with struggling students. Three full-time staff members serve as reading recovery specialists and plans include revamping the math program, including the purchase of new materials. A math recovery specialist will also be added.

“We’ve got more in place now helping with reading and math than we’ve ever had before,” Nardelli said.

Even as test results remain the same and even decline in some cases, the district’s focus stays unchanged.

“We want to have 100 percent of students test proficient or higher, but 100 percent is not an easy target to hit,” Nardelli said.