School Notes: Final Marks For NECAP Tests

School Officials Found Some Good Information, Some Flaws

The end of the New England Common Assessment Program is upon us and educators seem pleased to be bidding it farewell.

The tests, known by the unlovely acronym NECAP (pronounced “knee-cap”), have been a fixture of public education in Vermont and New Hampshire since 2005. Maine and Rhode Island also are part of the partnership that develops and administers the tests.

“I think it’s a mixed bag,” said Frank Bass, superintendent of Hanover and Norwich schools. While the results of the NECAP tests have been useful in guiding curriculum development, the scores came back so long after students took the tests that they weren’t very helpful in tailoring instruction to individual students during the school year, Bass and other educators said. The reading, math and writing results released this month are from tests taken in October.

“They do have a purpose,” said Beth Cobb, superintendent of Orange East Supervisory Union. “The thing that we learned from them is we could look at our curriculum needs.”

But to assess an individual child’s growth, “it wasn’t detailed enough,” she said.

Some of the judgment about the value of the NECAP tests is shaded by the looming figure of the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium, a group of 23 states, including New Hampshire and Vermont, that will use a common assessment, starting in the next school year. Unlike the NECAPs, the Smarter Balanced tests will be taken on a computer, and the results will be available almost immediately. The tests will be taken in the spring, starting in 2015, and will assess how well students have learned material from the school year. The NECAPs test the previous school year’s material in October.

While the timing of the new tests is an improvement over the NECAPs, they don’t leave educators much time in the school year to adjust instruction.

“I don’t know if there is an ideal testing window,” said Jeff Moreno, principal at Hartland Elementary School, one of 27 Vermont schools that will pilot the new tests this spring.

The new tests also won’t take as long to complete. The reading and math NECAPs could stretch for two weeks as students took them in big groups, while the SBACs will send students in small groups to a computer room to take the test while classmates continue their lessons.

The SBAC tests also adapt to a student’s answers. If a student struggles with one type of problem, the test scales back its level; if a child excels, the questions get harder.

“The SBAC will show us growth models,” said Cobb, who was Orange East’s curriculum coordinator before becoming superintendent.

The change in testing won’t do away with the criticisms of the No Child Left Behind Act and its emphasis on tests. Test results will still be used as an accountability measure for schools, which critics of testing say unfairly stigmatize schools that struggle to show progress.

And the tests are only one example of how to scrutinize schools. The No Child model of accountability was meant to help in large cities, where novice teachers work in underresourced classrooms, said Sylvia Sivret, principal at Cornish Elementary School.

“You have to take them with a grain of salt,” Sivret said of the test results. “It’s as if your doctor tested you based on your resting heart rate. It’s one measure,” and not necessarily the most accurate one.

In the Twin States, the annual test results are generally released well salted with caveats.

In New Hampshire, the NECAP scores released this month show no statistical variation from last year’s results. “The test results are only one of multiple measures of performance that are useful in assessing student progress and school performance,” Scott Mantie, head of assessment and accountability at the New Hampshire Department of Education said in a news release.

Vermont education officials decided not to release overall state results for this year, since 27 schools were given the year off from the NECAPs so they can pilot the Smarter Balanced tests in the spring.

The NECAPs are given to all public school students in grades 3 through 8 and 11 in reading and math, to fifth-, eighth- and 11-graders in writing and to all fourth-, eighth- and 11th-graders in science.

While many schools in the Upper Valley have shown progress on the tests, some areas have remained resistant to teachers’ efforts. Although the scores of students who qualify for free and reduced-price lunch have improved, in most schools a gap persists between them and the scores of students who don’t qualify because of higher famly incomes. And high school scores, particularly in math and writing, have lagged.

“It’s not a high-stakes test” for students, said Bass. Elementary school children work hard on the tests, but high school students care more about the SAT, which can affect their future. “If you look at SAT scores for Hanover High School, it’s better than any school in New Hampshire,” Bass said.

Many schools have taken testing into their own hands, planning regular tests that measure progress against the school’s standards to make sure students aren’t falling behind.

“As far as teaching to the tests, that’s exactly what teachers do,” said Sivret, who worked 29 years at Claremont Middle School before starting in Cornish. “I see nothing wrong with teaching to the test. You want to make sure the test measures what you’ve been teaching.”

Alex Hanson can be reached at ahans on@vnew.com or 603-727-3219.