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Testing Shapes Teaching: Twin State Educators Find NECAPs Useful

When the federal No Child Left Behind Act ushered in an era of high stakes testing for public schools, the response from Upper Valley educators was largely negative. The tests placed new burdens on schools and taxpayers and unfairly branded schools that didn’t improve their scores as “failing,” school officials said.

But the main purpose of the testing took place behind the scenes. Every year, the test results provide schools with a mountain of information about how students and teachers are doing. For a decade now, schools have been sifting through this information, and since 2006, New Hampshire and Vermont schools have been testing students in grades three through eight and grade 11 in reading and math. Fewer grades take annual tests in writing and science.

Follow this link to see a PDF of results from New Hampshire schools in the Upper Valley. Click here to see Vermont's results.

As painful as the public shaming of schools has been, educators say now that the tests have helped them identify students who need more help, teaching practices that need improvement and subject areas that would benefit from better curriculum.

“I was somewhat skeptical of the process at the start,” said Mike Harris, superintendent of the Lyme School District. He was superintendent in Lebanon when the school testing regime began and took its current form. It wasn’t clear how the tests would identify students and instruction that needed help, Harris said.

Now, he said, “I think they’ve been pretty good tests.” If a school and district can make time to analyze the data, it provides a road map for school improvement. In Lyme, where student test scores are generally high, that allows the district’s director of special education to focus on the relatively small number of students whose scores aren’t improving, Harris said.

What this means, educators and officials said, is that schools have been implementing new methods and programs and making slow, steady progress.

“Often we don’t give programs or teachers or good ideas a chance to work,” said Michael Hock, director of assessment at the Vermont Department of Education. For example, Vermont schools have been adding preschool and full-day kindergarten programs to improve school readiness. It will likely take several years for those initiatives to make a dent in test scores, Hock said.

The scores on the New England Common Assessment Program tests taken last fall in the Twin States showed little progress at the state level from the year before.

“Statewide, performances in mathematics, reading and writing have remained statistically the same,” New Hampshire officials said in a news release. But over the past seven years, around 10 percent more New Hampshire students at each grade and in each content area are achieving the grade level standards.

In Vermont, performance in math and reading remained stagnant from the year before, but elementary and middle school students made measurable progress in writing over the previous year.

In interviews, educators downplayed the accountability aspect of the testing, which had caused a furor when No Child Left Behind took effect in January 2002.

Under the law, all students are supposed to be proficient in reading and math by 2014, a goal widely understood as unrealistic. Last year, Hanover High School, considered one of the best in the state, was among the 70 percent of schools that failed to make “adequate yearly progress” in both reading and math, results that state Education Commissioner Virginia Barry cited as “ample evidence that the accountability system is broken, not that the vast majority of schools in New Hampshire are failing.”

Under No Child, subgroups of students who are disabled, economically disadvantaged or English language learners are also supposed to reach the mandated proficiency mark, and when they don’t, the school earns a failing label. Two years of that status and a school is flagged as “in need of improvement.” So many schools have reached that status — New Hampshire’s most recent list of schools in need of improvement runs to 17 pages — and are trying to improve instruction that it has become the norm.

Christine Downing, coordinator of educational improvement for Newport and Croydon schools, said using the test results for school improvement was a question of attitude. While politicians and teachers at first groaned under the federal imposition handed down by No Child, most have adjusted to it, the better to, as Downing put it, “make the best of the situation and use it to our advantage.”

“The tests were originally designed to do exactly what we’re doing with them,” Downing said.

Downing said the test results show exactly where students are struggling. “Once the data comes out, I sit with grade-level teams and we look at the data for the children who are in front of them right now,” she said.

The district’s curriculum is based on the state standards that underpin the tests, Downing said. The test results show what content areas the schools struggle to communicate, and lead teachers to question how students learn particular concepts.

One question that has arisen from studying test data, Downing said, is “What misconceptions would a student have that would lead them to this wrong answer?”

Schools now administer more tests during the school year to assess whether children are absorbing the material. These “formative assessments” help teachers adjust their instruction in the middle of the year, and many schools use questions similar to those found on the NECAP tests. Such assessments not only help teachers adjust, they also provide a snapshot to students so they can assess their own progress and take control of their own learning, Downing said.

Newport schools have shown solid, if uneven, improvement on the NECAP tests. In 2006, only 40 percent of eighth-graders were proficient in math, but last fall 61 percent were proficient or better. That’s still below the state average, but nonetheless shows significant growth. Eighth-grade reading has improved even more, from 58 percent scoring proficent or better in 2006 to 81 percent reaching that mark last fall. (Student test results fall into one of four categories; proficient with distinction, proficient, partially proficient or substantially below proficient.)

In some instances, particular groups show at best modest progress on the NECAP tests. For example, high school scores have been most resistant to improvement, with some educators theorizing that 11th-graders have little incentive to work hard on tests that have no impact on their grades or college plans. And an achievement gap remains between students of low socio-economic status and their comparatively better off peers.

There are exceptions to these rules. The University of Vermont has identified Windsor High School as a school that’s closing the achievement gap in reading, Principal Michael Kell said..

On the tests given in 2011, 73 percent of Windsor juniors who received free or reduced-price lunch were proficient, which compares favorably to the 76 percent of students not on free and reduced lunch who score proficient. Last fall, 83 percent of juniors on free and reduced lunch were proficient or better, while only 61 percent of their non-free-and-reduced-lunch peers met that standard.

Examining the NECAP results has been crucial to understanding what’s going on in the classroom, Kell said.

“I don’t look at NECAPs as something negative,” he said. “We need to turn it around and say, what are the NECAPs telling us.”

Even where the achievement gap has persisted, test scores for disadvantaged children have improved, Hock said.

“In some cases we were disappointed, because the gap hasn’t closed, but we have seen the scores go up,” he said. “Sometimes, the best way to improve the results for low income families is something that improves results for all kids.”

Canaan Elementary School has also closed the achievement gap in some areas. Last fall, 100 percent of economically disadvantaged fourth-graders were proficient or better in reading, while 93 percent of students deemed not disadvantaged met or beat the standard.

In addition to closely examining the test results and meeting with teachers across the Mascoma Regional School District, Nancie Murphy has had teachers go to classes designed by Plymouth State University on such subjects as “thinking maps” and early education, then bring those lessons home to other teachers in the district. Robert Greenleaf, an education and neuroscience researcher, has been a regular presence in the Mascoma district, where he helps teachers understand how children learn.

“A lot of what he’s been doing is help people look formatively at what teachers are doing,” said Murphy, who has been in the Mascoma schools since 1975 and is currently the director of curriculum, assessment and professional development, and is subbing as principal at Canaan Elementary.

“I think one of the things the test has done is it’s given us a good vehicle to take a close look at children,” Murphy said. The NECAPs have “forced us to look at what we can do to provide the best education for each student.”

To a large degree, that was the point all along. In August, Vermont will release its list of which schools failed to make “adequate yearly progress.” New Hampshire is seeking a waiver from the federal government in an attempt to use its own standards to determine which schools are failing.

And in the next school year, students in New Hampshire, Vermont, Maine and Rhode Island, the four states that use the NECAP tests, will take the exams for the last time. The Twin States are among the 45 states that have signed on to the Common Core State Standards, a new curriculum that will have its own set of tests starting in 2014.

The NECAPs have served their purpose, educators said. “I actually think the new tests are going to be the next generation up,” said Downing. They will offer a new and better way to assess student performance, she said.

Alex Hanson can be reached at ahanson@vnews.com or 603-727-3219.