Studying NECAP science scores (10/8/09)

Williston to examine other successful schools

Oct. 8, 2009

By Tim Simard

Observer staff

In the wake of substandard eighth grade science assessment scores — albeit ones that bested the state average — the Williston School District is looking for keys to improvement. District Principal Walter Nardelli said the school is taking immediate steps to make sure next year’s science scores progress.

Nardelli said administrators and science coordinators from all schools within Chittenden South Supervisory Union met last week to discuss action plans with regard to the New England Common Assessment Program science exam results. He said CSSU would make a concerted effort to improve science instruction, from kindergarten to grade 12.

Some changes could include the way science is taught as a core subject and the number of hours per week students spend in science classes, Nardelli said.

“This was the beginning,” he said. “We’re planning on meeting on a regular basis from now on.”

One of the first steps will be to look at similar schools that tested better on the NECAP exams and find out what they’re strategies are, Nardelli added. With the exception of a small school in Montgomery, middle schools in Essex and South Burlington tested the highest in the state.

Late last month, the Vermont Department of Education released the NECAP science scores, administered statewide in the spring. Students in grades four, eight and 11 take the science NECAP exams. This was the second year the tests were given.

Williston fared better than the state average and was one of the top districts of its population size in terms of fourth grade scores. But eighth graders struggled on the exams, in Williston and across the state. In Williston, 36 percent of the 139 eighth graders who took the NECAP science exam tested proficient or higher. It was a drop of 10 percentage points from the previous year.

In Vermont, 25 percent of eighth grade students tested proficient or higher.

NECAP exams are also given in reading, math and writing. Those tests will be given next week in Williston.


Other schools

Across the state, 15 of 122 middle schools had proficiency levels equal to or better than Williston’s. Of those 15, six middle schools tested more than 100 eighth graders.

Comparable schools that scored better than Williston include Middlebury Union Middle School, where 47 percent of the 157 eighth graders tested proficient or higher.

Closer to home, 52 percent of Essex Middle School’s 149 eighth graders tested proficient or higher. In South Burlington’s Frederick H. Tuttle Middle School, 53 percent of the 179 eighth graders tested proficient or higher. South Burlington scored the highest of any school in the state that tested more than 100 students.

South Burlington’s principal, Joe O’Brien, credited much of the school’s success to the faculty. The school improved by six percentage points over the previous year.

“We have some very talented teachers that really work well together,” O’Brien said.

O’Brien said he ensures the science curriculum is aligned with Vermont’s grade-level expectations. O’Brien also said the four science labs are a key part of the program, where much of the science instruction occurs.

Students receive 55 minutes of science instruction per day, O’Brien added, equaling roughly 160 hours of science a year. The state minimum is 120 hours per year.

In Middlebury, Principal Inga Duktig also praised her faculty for the higher-than-average results and improvements in curriculum.

“Our teachers have been working very hard to align our curriculum with the state’s grade expectations,” Duktig said.

All Middlebury science classes are taught in lab settings and students receive approximately 140 hours of science per year, Duktig said.

Both principals said much work still needs to be done, including raising test scores in student subgroups, such as those from low income families.

In Williston, Nardelli said the discussion on science improvements is wide-ranging, from how labs are taught to the annual number of hours of science instruction. Most labs at Williston Central School take place within the classroom, rather than a lab setting.

Last year, an internal audit in Williston determined the district was meeting the mandatory minimum 120 hours of science instruction per year, although the hours include projects that integrate science with other subjects and varied depending on the academic house.

Nardelli said more science could be taught in the classrooms next year, and all administrators want to keep integrated learning. But all options are on the table, even if they require budget increases.

“Even if we meet the state’s standards, we need to ask, ‘Is this enough? Can we do more?’” Nardelli said.