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Does Test Strike the Balance?

Newest Measure of Student Achievement Get Mixed Reviews

  • Marion Cross School sixth-grade teacher Kara McKeever works with her students on measuring conversions and ratios in her class in Norwich, on April 1, 2016. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Sixth-graders Nick Vuyovich, left, and Blake Hooper Goetinck work in class at the Marion Cross School in Norwich, Vt., on April 1, 2016. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Valley News — Jennifer HauckMarion Cross School sixth-grade teacher Kara McKeever works with her students on measuring conversions and ratios in Norwich on Friday.

  • Valley News — Jennifer HauckMarion Cross School sixth-grade teacher Kara McKeever works with her students on measuring conversions and ratios in Norwich on Friday.



Valley News Staff Writer
Sunday, April 03, 2016

Lyme — As students throughout Vermont and New Hampshire begin the second year of the latest standardized testing program, educators in the Upper Valley report that there have been some hitches during the rollout but also express hope that it will deliver future benefits.

The computerized exam, called the Smarter Balanced Assessment, replaced the pen-and-paper New England Common Assessment Program, or NECAP (pronounced “kneecap”), last spring.

Based on the Common Core standards, the SBAC, as educators are calling the new assessment, offers a more challenging and comprehensive measure of students’ knowledge in grades three through eight and 11.

Educational administrators last week touted SBAC’s technological advantages: It can respond in real time to students’ answers, calibrating the questions to their understanding; it can be given in smaller portions over multiple days, whereas the old test had to be done all at once; and, for students with reading disabilities and English-language difficulties, it can translate words or read them aloud so that those pupils’ math scores don’t suffer.

Despite those advantages, some educators, such as Lyme Superintendent Mike Harris, are focused on the hangups.

“I’m afraid my response is going to more emphasize the problems more than the benefits,” he said last week. “I would say the format actually proved a bit troublesome, insofar as ... students wound up, the first day of the test, taking the wrong test.”

Due to a labeling error from the state’s testing contractor, schools in Lyme and all over New Hampshire last March had to stop testing and come back again for a second try. The mix-up, Harris said, may have hurt students’ scores.

Although both New Hampshire and Vermont use the same contractor, the Granite State began testing a day earlier — giving the Green Mountain State time to avoid those mistakes, said Michael Hock, director of educational assessment at the Vermont Agency of Education.

“We owe New Hampshire for uncovering that problem for us,” Hock said.

As a result, Hock said, the problem cropped up only in one or two Vermont schools, and in one case only a single classroom.

Harris, the Lyme superintendent, also expressed concern that students and teachers had spent too long getting accustomed to the new format.

“The preparation for the test was long and kind of arduous,” Harris said. “The whole process consumed an undue amount of time and took away from instruction.”

Harris said he hoped the difficulties experienced in his district had more to do with the rollout of the test than with the format itself.

SAU 70 Superintendent Frank Bass echoed Harris’ language, calling the SBAC “long and arduous” compared with the assessment system that Hanover-Norwich schools use.

Although schools must take the SBAC, Dresden also uses a private program that allows teachers to quiz students on Common Core standards at their discretion. That assessment program, contracted from a Hanover-based company called True Progress, has made SBAC “redundant” in the district, Bass said.

The newness of the test also means that comparisons between last spring’s results and those of prior years are not particularly useful.

The SBAC tests a wider range of materials and is more difficult, so scores were expected to be lower — which they were, Hock said.

In both states, fewer than 60 percent of students scored “proficient” or above on the test, with significantly higher marks for reading than for math.

Even though results for past tests bear little relevance anymore, administrators can compare SBAC results among schools for the same year’s testing.

That performance pattern across Vermont has remained very much the same, according to Hock:perennially high-scoring schools maintained their ranking, as did those on the lower end of the scale.

In fact, he said, the distribution was “almost identical,” including the so-called “achievement gap,” or the disparity in scores between the average student and children from low-income families and those with learning disabilities or language barriers.

“The achievement gap based on family income that we saw in the previous version of the test was still there,” Hock said, “and it’s as big as it was in the past.”

Schools around the Upper Valley followed the same pattern, with students in wealthier towns scoring higher, and vice versa.

In Claremont, for example, the proportion of “proficient” scores clustered around the 30 percent mark. In two subjects — sixth-grade math and eighth-grade reading — only 22 percent of students hit that mark.

And in contrast, at the Marion W. Cross School in Norwich, one of the state’s top-ranked elementary schools in one of Vermont’s wealthiest towns, 80 to 90 percent of students met that standard in nearly every grade and category.

Class sizes in some school districts were below the reporting limit for results. In Croydon, for example, only eight third-graders took the test.

This year’s testing runs from now until June in the Twin States.

“It’s a long window,” Hock said, “and everything is done by computer, and (so) schools have a lot of flexibility.”

In Windsor Southeast Supervisory Union, for instance, two schools will test at the beginning of May and another two at the end of that month.

At the Marion Cross School, teachers have leeway as to when to administer the exams, Principal Bill Hammond said, in a window beginning after April vacations and continuing through May.

This time around, educational administrators have worked out some of the kinks, according to Hock, the Vermont testing coordinator.

Whereas results may have taken months to arrive last year, now they should be calculated within 10 days, he said.

That may help address a frustration that educators last week expressed with standardized tests: though the assessments may provide an individualized picture of a student’s knowledge, the scores arrive too late to make adjustments for that child.

“The actual result gets back later from the time you took it,” Bass said last week, “and often times (the student is) in a different grade level.”

The results may have told a teacher, “I should have done fractions in October,” Bass added, “but you don’t get to make the change until the following year.”

Rob Wolfe can be reached at 603-727-3242 or at rwolfe@vnews.com.