Local schools boost test scores

Gaps remain in income, disability, gender

By Kim Howard
Observer staff

Williston’s public elementary and middle schools outpaced the Vermont state average by hefty margins in state test results released by the Vermont Department of Education last week. Williston scores were slightly higher over last year.

In reading, 81 percent of Williston students met or exceeded state proficiency levels, compared with 68 percent statewide. Last year only 77 percent of Williston students scored proficient or better.

In math, 83 percent were proficient or higher – up 4 percentage points over last year; only 63 percent of Vermont students scored in the same categories. In writing, 62 percent of Williston students attained or surpassed the state standard, compared with 49 percent across Vermont.

“In general CSSU is doing significantly better than the state,” said Chittenden South Supervisory Union Superintendent Elaine Pinckney. “Because these tests were developed around the grade level expectations, they really are a good indication of how students are progressing in the state curriculum.”

In its second year, the New England Common Assessment Program tests measure how well students meet the state’s expectations for success in their respective grade levels. The tests were administered to students in grades three through eight last fall. Students in all six grades took the math and reading tests; only students in grades five and eight took the writing test.

Champlain Valley Union High School juniors took the NECAP high school pilot test last fall; next fall’s juniors will take the full assessment.

Williston school students with disabilities and economically disadvantaged students (measured by who is eligible for free- and reduced-meal programs) showed improvement in scores over last year, though significant gaps remain between them and their peers – a trend seen statewide and nationally.

Since each of those student subgroups contains only about 70 students, the score differences can be slightly misleading. Still, Pinckney said the upward trend is something educators will look at. For example, nearly half of Williston’s economically disadvantaged students scored proficient or higher in reading this year, compared with only one-third last year. Similarly over one-third of students with disabilities were proficient or higher in math this year, compared with only a quarter last year.

Williston schools have been assessing all students more frequently through a pilot program called “response to instruction,” Pinckney said. The higher scores among subgroups and all students “might be some of the results of that,” she said.

Gender differences persist locally, as they do statewide and nationally. Though boys and girls scored nearly identically in math, girls outperformed boys by a wide margin in reading and writing.

Williston school administrators said they have not yet had time to review the test data formally with teachers – a half-day is set aside in early March for that purpose, according to information presented at previous school board meetings.

Nevertheless, District Principal Walter Nardelli said the school’s reading/writing and math curriculum coordinators indicated three efforts that may be responsible for score improvements. Using practice problems and other resources released by the test makers has helped educators understand the structure of the tests, they said. School-wide data helps teachers and administrators understand potential weaknesses in certain subject area skills, they also noted, so improvements can be made accordingly.

Individual student scores, especially of non-proficient students, also can help teachers plan appropriate interventions if the scores are consistent with regular classroom tests and performance, they said.

Pinckney noted that NECAP exams are not the best way to assess an individual child; during testing, for example, a child may be ill or facing other challenges.

“The test is a measure of how your school programs are doing in the big picture way,” Pinckney said. Individual student assessment, she said, is “hopefully … happening every minute of every day. (For example,) a teacher is teaching a unit, they are noticing if a student is understanding and right then they are assessing how to help a student understand.”

As required by the federal No Child Left Behind Act, a science test will be added to the roster of tests for grades four, eight and 11 in May 2008.