House by house: Analyzing schools

July 31, 2008
By Tim Simard
Observer staff

Broken down by house, Williston's 2007 scores on the New England Common Assessment Program reveal differences between the teams, though District Principal Walter Nardelli said the information only demonstrates a part of what students are learning.

In the upper houses, average math scores ranged from 74 percent to 89 percent of students scoring proficient or higher; reading scores ranged from 71 percent to 84 percent proficiency or higher; and writing scores ranged from 48 percent to 71 percent proficiency or higher.

Lower house math scores of proficient or higher ranged from 64 percent to 96 percent; reading scores ranged from 66 percent to 83 percent.

Nardelli provided scores last week for each grade in each house in response to a Vermont Public Record request from the Observer. The numbers used in this story and accompanying graphs represent the average scores for all grades in an academic house.

NECAP averages by house
Percentage of students scoring proficient or higher

The information in these graphs represents the average scores for all grades in an academic house, based on grade-by-grade scores for each house provided by the Williston School District. The school district would not provide the actual names of houses.

Nardelli expressed apprehension over releasing the information, saying it was not meant for “public consumption” and fearing it would keep the town and schools in “further turmoil.”

In recent months, parents have at various community forums and School Board meetings voiced concerns about perceived inequity across the houses.

Nardelli cautioned the scores do not tell the whole truth regarding the equity of education within the houses, and was concerned parents would start requesting transfers of students in the middle of the summer without knowing all the facts.

“People are going to have assumptions that aren't true,” he said. “It is normal that you'll get differences between houses.”

Since 2005, NECAP tests have been administered to students in grades three through eight as a way to measure a school's adequate yearly progress, according to Michael Hock, director of educational assessment for the Vermont Department of Education. Grades five and eight are tested on writing. Adequate yearly progress must be measured under the federal No Child Left Behind Act.

Nardelli said the school receives the NECAP scores on a school, grade and individual student basis from the DOE. To get the house information, the district takes individual test scores and groups them according to the house a student attends.

But Nardelli said no one — including teachers, administrators and him — sees the names of the houses on the NECAP results. The name of the house isn't as important as the results, Nardelli said.

A Vermont Public Record request from the Observer for a key to identify each house with the scores was denied. Cindy Koenemann-Warren, human resources director for Chittenden South Supervisory Union, said in an e-mail to the Observer that no such record exists and would not be provided. She said CSSU consulted with its lawyer in reaching the decision.

“The School District is not required to provide the report in an alternate format nor is it required to create a report that does not currently exist,” Koenemann-Warren wrote.

The results

While the percentage of students scoring proficient or higher in each subject varied by house, most houses were above the state average in the tested subjects. All houses exceed the state math average of 63 percent proficiency.

Only one lower house is below the state reading average of 70 percent proficiency, with another upper house matching the state average. In writing, one upper house matches the state's 48 percent score, while the rest are above the average.

Williston as a school district averaged 79 percent for math, 77 percent for reading, and 63 percent for writing.

Nardelli said the scores are meant to be analyzed at grade levels, not in a house system such as Williston's. He said he's more concerned about balance between grade levels than getting exact scores between houses.

The current house scores don't show student progression through the school system, he said. Nardelli said the best information NECAP testing provides is how a particular student is improving in math and reading through the school years.

Hock of the DOE agreed, stating the important issue is that students are meeting the state standards.

“If I was the principal, I would hope each house was scoring above the state averages,” Hock said, adding he believes Williston consistently has strong scores.

Nardelli said a number of factors could explain some of the variances in scores across the houses, including the distribution of special education and economically disadvantaged students. Statistically, neither group performs as well as its peers on the NECAP tests, Nardelli said, a problem the school is trying to fix. And while the administration strives to balance the number of special education students and economically disadvantaged students across the houses, it does not always work out equally.

Also, the movement of students in and out of town, or between houses, can affect the scores of a house each year. The chemistry between students in the houses, and between teachers and students, can also affect scoring.

“It's not black and it's not white,” Nardelli said. “It's a gray area.”

Asked if he believed the NECAP tests are the best way to measure a student's academic abilities, Nardelli shook his head and said, “No.” What's important is that students know how to learn in life, not how to learn to take a test, he said.

“The fact is Williston kids know how to learn,” Nardelli said.