Grading The NECAPs

Tests Have Proved Useful to Educators

A quick glance at the most recent batch of NECAP scores published in the May 7 Valley News might give the impression that it’s more of the same-old same-old: disparities in scores among schools that mirror the relative wealth of school districts; generally weak math scores for high schoolers; and still too many students who fail to achieve proficiency. But to read the accompanying story by staff writer Alex Hanson about NECAP — the New England Common Assessment Program achievement tests administered annually to track schools’ and students’ progress — is to come upon a new and striking development: a growing acceptance among educators of the tests’ usefulness.

As Hanson reported, this represents a remarkable attitude shift from the early days of the No Child Left Behind Act — the landmark legislation passed during the George W. Bush era that instituted annual standardized tests by way of holding schools accountable for educational results. Complaints about No Child ranged from the practical to the philosophical. Teachers would be forced to “teach to the test.” Too much time would be consumed by testing students that might otherwise be spent teaching them. Labeling schools that failed to measure up and threatening them with various sanctions was too punitive. Standardized tests demonstrate little more than what’s already known: Children from economically comfortable families with high expectations will perform better than those from more challenging circumstances.

Not all of those criticisms have faded. At the same time, however, a number of Upper Valley educators credit the test for providing their districts with information that helps them identify students, teachers, areas of the curriculum and educational practices in need of attention. Even in school districts whose students generally perform well, the tests have proved helpful. In Lyme, for example, NECAP scores help the district’s director of special education identify which students are struggling and might benefit from focused effort.

“The tests were originally designed to do exactly what we’re doing with them,” said Christine Downing, coordinator of educational improvement for Newport and Croydon schools, who annually reviews results with the teaching teams of different grades to pinpoint where improvement is needed.

And although the annual results often show only slight change from one year to the next, Hanson reports that, in fact, gradual improvement is detectable. Over the last seven years, for example, around 10 percent more of the students tested in New Hampshire have scored at proficient or better at each grade level and in each content area. More impressive, perhaps, have been the significant improvements demonstrated within individual districts. In Newport, for example, 61 percent of eighth-graders tested last fall in math achieved proficiency or better, up from 40 percent in 2006, while reading proficiency at that grade level improved from 58 to 81 percent. In Windsor, 83 percent of high school juniors from economically disadvantaged families tested as proficient or better last fall — not only better than how the same group did the year before, but better than those students who didn’t qualify for free or reduced-price lunch, the standard measure of the economic status of students’ families.

Another noteworthy aspect of the testing regime is that the dynamic it has created for educational improvement is very different from what many assumed was the original intention. Some of the resistance to No Child surely stemmed from the not-so-subtle disrespect some of its most ardent supporters expressed for professional educators. Those advocates of so-called high-stakes testing believed the annual exercise would improve education by identifying low-performing schools and teachers and whipping them into shape either through embarrassment or sanctions. But the real advancement seems to be the result of dedicated educators recognizing the usefulness of the information they’re acquiring from tests and using their professional skills to determine what changes will best serve their students and schools.