Mixed science results for Williston students

Sept. 30, 2010

By Stephanie Choate and Greg Duggan
Observer staff

The latest NECAP test scores for science show Williston eighth graders performing far below their peers in neighboring school districts, and even scoring below the state average in proficiency levels.

Williston fourth grade students also took the science portion of the New England Common Assessment Program test, as did 11th graders at Champlain Valley Union High School. Scores for those two groups came in above the state average.

This was the third year students were administered the science version of the standardized tests, known as the NECAP exams.

Students in grades four, eight and 11 in Vermont, New Hampshire, Rhode Island and Maine take the exams. Students took the tests in May, and results were released last week by the Vermont Department of Education.

NECAP scores are split into four levels: proficient with distinction, proficient, partially proficient and substantially below proficient.

Statewide, students performed better than they did last year, but officials still said there is plenty of room for improvement.

“While our scores continue to increase slightly each year, we obviously have a long way to go regarding how well our students acquire science skills and knowledge,” Commissioner Armando Vilaseca said in a press release.

Troubling trend at Williston Central

In Williston, 66 percent of fourth grade students scored proficient or higher, compared to the state average of 54 percent. Williston’s fourth grade scores also signify a slight bump from last year, when 64 percent of students scored proficient or higher.

Eighth grade scores for Williston, however, dropped 10 percentage points from 2009. This year, 26 percent of Williston students scored proficient or higher — a number less than the state average of 29 percent. The scores mark the second straight year Williston has seen a decline in eighth grade science proficiency: 46 percent of students scored proficient or higher in 2008; 36 percent did so last year.

“We are very pleased with the 4th grade scores and commend our K-4 teachers for their great work,” School Board Chairwoman Holly Rouelle wrote in an e-mail to the Observer. “Our long term goal is to continue to improve on our current scores.”

As for the eighth grade scores, Rouelle wrote she is “VERY disappointed and surprised. While we know that there is typically a gap between our 4th and 8th grade scores, I never expected that we would do so poorly at the 8th grade level. We have some major work to do at the middle school level.”

Rouelle noted that board members have not yet met to discuss the scores. She and District Principal Walter Nardelli said a task force from Chittenden South Supervisory Union is studying science instruction in CSSU.

Nardelli was otherwise unable to comment on the scores prior to press deadline.

“I will get back to you later in the week. We are working on the analysis right now,” he wrote in an e-mail to the Observer.

The task force, a group of science teachers and administrators that formed in 2009, works to improve science instruction. It developed a three-year work plan, including goals for professional development and student performance. The task force will be meeting to discuss details of the exam and determine what can be done to improve scores.

Rouelle said part of the task force’s assignment is to look at Charlotte’s model for science instruction. Students at Charlotte Central School consistently perform better than their peers in neighboring districts; this year, 80 percent of Charlotte fourth graders and 59 percent of eighth graders scored proficient or higher on the NECAP science exams.

Asked if Williston would consider changing teachers or the science curriculum, Rouelle responded, “Without a doubt, we need to look at professional development in the area of science for our middle school teachers.”

She said the board had added $10,000 for science supplies to the school budget for this school year.

As in past years, Williston experienced a drop in scores for low-income and special education students.

The School Board is scheduled to hear a science NECAP presentation at its meeting in November, Rouelle said.

CVU exceeds state average

At CVU, scores were about the same as last year.

Forty-two percent of students scored proficient or higher, the same as last year, compared with 28 percent statewide. Twenty percent scored substantially below proficient, up from 18 percent last year.

In high schools comparable to CVU, 27 percent of students in South Burlington High School scored proficient or higher, 55 percent of Essex High School students scored percent proficient or higher and 36 percent of Mount Mansfield Union High School students scored percent proficient or higher.

CVU Principal Sean McMannon could not be reached before press deadline.

Students will begin taking NECAP reading, writing and math assessments next week. Grades three through eight and grade 11 take the reading and math exam, and grades five, eight and 11 take the writing portion.