Town hits historic highs on state science exams

By Stephanie Choate

Observer staff

Williston students received the highest scores on science standardized tests since the district began taking them six years ago, and subgroups also made gains in closing the achievement gap.

Williston Central School’s scores on the New England Common Assessment Program’s science exams jumped for both fourth and eighth grade, according to results released last week by Vermont Agency of Education.

District Principal Walter Nardelli said that while he is happy students made gains, residents should keep in mind that a different group of students is being tested each year.

“We like the gains we saw,” he said. “We’re not satisfied completely, but we thought we made good gains, there’s no doubt about that.”

Nardelli said the district has been focusing on science instruction and has been making progress, though he noted that improvements don’t happen overnight.

“We have work to do,” said. “I’m never going to be satisfied until we’re like 90 percent-plus, but the fact of the matter is we’re moving in the right direction, we are seeing progress…. We need to make sure we’re taking the right steps so we see steady progress over time.”

Students in grades four, eight and 11 in Vermont, New Hampshire, Rhode Island and Maine take the exams in the spring.

The NECAP science assessment combines scores from multiple choice and short answer questions with results from an inquiry task, where students analyze and interpret findings from an actual science experiment.

The science test is designed to measure students’ scientific literacy, combining knowledge of biological, physical and earth/space science with critical thinking skills.

“Kids need to see how these areas of science work together,” said Armando Vilaseca, secretary of education, in a press release sent out Sept. 25. “Our hope is that students will see the value of science as a context for applying mathematics and effectively using communication skills.”


In Williston, 69 percent of fourth grade students scored proficient or higher, up four percent from last year’s scores and well above the state average of 48 percent.

While Williston’s scores improved, Vermont saw a 6 percent drop in fourth grade scores statewide.

State Director of Educational Assessment Michael Hock pointed to the test’s inquiry section as the major source of the lower scores.

“The inquiry section requires students to apply the scientific processes to a real life, hands-on investigation,” Hock said in a press release. “Students also need to use the language of science to report their findings and conclusions. The Agency will continue to encourage an inquiry approach to teaching science in the classroom, with special emphasis on how science instruction needs to interact with English Language Arts.”

Rhode Island and New Hampshire also saw a large score drop this year for students in grade four.

In grade 8, 49 percent of Williston students scored proficient or higher, up 6 percent from last year and also above the state average of 33 percent.

Williston also saw gains in subgroups.

Among fourth grade students on free and reduced lunch, 64 percent scored proficient or higher—a drastic jump from 40 percent in 2012 and just 5 percent below the scores for all students.

“That’s probably the best scores we’ve seen on a subgroup on almost any kind of test, so we we’re pretty proud of those scores,” Nardelli said.

Among students with disabilities, 36 percent scored proficient or higher. Results last year were not released.

In eighth grade, 24 percent of students on free and reduced lunch scored proficient or higher—up from 17 percent—and 6 percent, the same as 2012.Williston fourth graders performed better than all the other schools in the Chittenden South Supervisory Union, but the eighth grade scores lagged behind the other three towns.

In comparison, 63 percent of Charlotte Central School fourth graders and 76 percent of eighth graders scores proficient or higher. In Hinesburg, 62 percent of fourth graders and 69 percent of eighth graders scored proficient or higher, and in Shelburne, the numbers came in at 68 percent and 53 percent.


While Champlain Valley Union High School 11th grade students scored above the statewide average, scores dropped 8 percent from 2012.

At CVU, 46 percent of grade 11 students scored proficient or higher, down from 54 percent last year. That’s compared to 57 percent at Essex High School, 49 percent at Mount Mansfield Union High School and 54 percent at South Burlington High School. Statewide, 32 percent of students scored proficient or above.

Representatives from CVU could not be reached for comment before press deadline.