Making sense of the NECAP scores2/12/09

School officials react to test results

Feb. 12, 2009

By Tim Simard

Observer staff

More than a week after the release of the statewide New England Common Assessment Program tests, local school and Chittenden South Supervisory Union administrators are sifting through the data and looking to make educational improvements.

Overall, the Williston School District and Champlain Valley Union High School scored above the state average in all subject areas, but struggled with scores for economically disadvantaged and special needs students.

The exams, known as the NECAP tests, were administered in October 2008 and track student academic progress, as required by the federal No Child Left Behind Act. Grades three through eight and grade 11 take the reading and math exams, while grades five, eight and 11 take the writing portion.

District Principal Walter Nardelli said last week he was pleased Williston performed higher than the state average — 80 percent of students scored proficient or higher in reading, 79 percent did so in math and 64 percent did so in writing — but said more work needs to be done for certain students.

Jude Newman, CSSU’s director of curriculum, assessment and professional development, said she’s pleased all the schools in the supervisory union performed above state averages. But she said she’s “worried” after looking at the numbers for economically disadvantaged and special needs students.

“It’s something that’s bothering us a lot,” Newman said.

Williston reflected the state averages for both subgroups. The percentage of economically disadvantaged students meeting proficiency hovered around 50 percent in reading and math. Numbers were lower for special needs, around 22 percent proficiency in both subject areas.

Williston wasn’t the only district with low scores for both subgroups. Newman said it’s a statewide and supervisory-wide issue that needs to be addressed. While Newman would not comment directly on Williston’s results, she did say schools in the union are adopting a “response to intervention” stance, which tests key students on a weekly basis to make sure they’re not falling behind. Known as RTI, the idea is to catch students who struggle on certain subjects and make sure they understand what they’re learning before moving on to new topics.

Williston implemented RTI in a district-wide capacity last year. Nardelli said results from the program might become evident in 2009’s fall NECAP scores. Nardelli also hopes the 2009 scores will reflect some of the supplemental services and after-school tutoring some economically disadvantaged and special needs student can receive through the school.

Newman said improving those students’ scores is a top priority in the supervisory union, and the schools are constantly looking for ways to improve teaching methods.

“We really, really want to see a change for us with that group of students,” Newman said. “We will not stop until we see the results change.”

CVU reactions

In the second year of administering the exam to its juniors, CVU had similar scores in reading and math from the previous year — 79 percent of students scored proficient or higher in reading, 46 percent did so in math. Writing scores showed noticeable improvement, as they did statewide. CVU had 62 percent of students score proficient or higher this year, as opposed to last year’s 55 percent.

“We’ve had a focus on writing for a quite a while,” Principal Sean McMannon said.

McMannon said he was pleased the school beat the state averages and showed improvements in writing, but said he was in something of a “holding pattern” in terms of analyzing student improvement through the years.

“I’m more concerned about how (individual) students have improved,” McMannon said.

This year’s 11th graders are the first group of students who have also taken the NECAPs in middle school. He said analysis of those results were in their early stages.

McMannon said he’s also interested in trends, and it would be difficult to find them with only the second year on the exams.

“To get any kind of trending, you want five to six years of hard data,” McMannon said.

He was reticent to talk about comparisons to area high schools, since some performed better than CVU on reading and on par in math, while all scored lower in writing. Again, he wanted to see what the trends in the data would be.

McMannon said scores for economically disadvantaged and special needs students are lower than he and the faculty would like, but there are programs in place to reach students early on when they need help in certain subject areas. The high school identifies students who need help with reading and math before they get to CVU, so when school begins, extra help can commence immediately.

CVU was below the state average in reading and math scores for economically disadvantaged students and close to average for special needs students.

Teachers and staff will go through the test to see if there are any major curriculum gaps that need to be addressed. But he stressed high school learning encompasses a wider approach than what’s found on the NECAP.

“I don’t want to ever foster a culture of teaching to the test,” McMannon said.