• Central Vermont educators both 'frustrated, pleased' by test scores
    By David Delcore
     | February 08,2007
     

    MONTPELIER — School officials throughout central Vermont are scrambling to decide what to make of the latest batch of student test scores they received this week.

    "It's kind of early to react," said Jim Taffel, co-principal of Barre City Elementary and Middle School, after briefly reviewing how students from his school fared on the New England Common Assessment Program, or NECAP, administered last fall.

    Taffel acknowledged Tuesday that he had hoped the results would be better.

    Although the school's third- through eighth-graders showed measurable improvement on both the reading and mathematics portions of the test and its fifth- and eighth-graders slipped only a single percentage point on the writing exam, Barre's scores, across the board, were below newly released state averages.

    "It's frustrating," said Taffel.

    "We're working our hearts out to help kids academically," he said, ticking off a list of grant-funded initiatives that are all aimed at improving student performance."Our mission and our purpose is clear and it has not changed," he said. "We're here to help every child learn as much as they possibly can from the time they arrive to the time they leave us."

    Still, Taffel said there are challenges, and demographically Barre has its share.

    More than half of the local students tested — 54 percent — live in homes where income levels are low enough to make them eligible for free or reduced-price lunches — a group of students whose achievement level statewide has not kept pace with peers.

    According to newly released results, 68 percent of all Vermont students were proficient or higher on the reading exam, compared with 51 percent of all low-income students and 60 percent of students in Barre.

    On the mathematics exam, 64 percent of Vermont students were proficient or higher, compared with 46 percent of all low-income students and 56 percent of the students in Barre. Only 49 percent of Vermont students were proficient or higher on the writing exam, compared with 32 percent of all low-income students and 34 percent of Barre students.

    The story was much different at another centralized elementary school just a few miles away in the same supervisory union.

    Students at Barre Town Middle and Elementary School performed above and, in one case, well above the state averages.

    According to the results, 73 percent of the 608 students tested in Barre Town were proficient or better on the reading exam and 68 percent passed the mathematics exam. On the writing test 60 percent of Barre Town students were proficient or better — 11 percentage points above the statewide average.

    Asked to explain the difference in the performance of the two K-8 schools, Barre Superintendent Michele Fagan noted that only 19 percent of Barre Town students are eligible for free or reduced-price lunch.

    "Poverty is an issue," she said.

    However, Fagan said she is as concerned with an 8 percentage point drop in Barre Town's scores on this year's writing exam as she is with the city's test results, but emphasized neither was cause for alarm.

    "Overall, at first look, I'm pleased with what we're doing and the way we're attacking increasing our scores," she said.

    Montpelier Superintendent John Everitt said the results released by the state Department of Education on Tuesday do not tell him what he wants to know about the Capital City's school system.

    "You can't tell much from these scores," he said, explaining that school officials in Montpelier want to know how their district stacks up against the top-scoring supervisory unions in the state.

    "Our goal is for Montpelier to be among the top 10 supervisory unions" in terms of test scores, he said. "Until the state gives us the data it's hard for us to judge how we're doing compared to our goal."

    What Everitt does know is that students at Union Elementary School performed above the state average on all three exams — showing strong gains in two of the three areas and holding relatively steady in the third, while those at Main Street Middle School exceeded the state average in reading, were right at the state average on the mathematics exam and just below it on the writing exam.

    Everitt defended the latter scores, despite a marked drop in student performance on all three exams.

    "Our (Vermont) kids compared to the nation do quite well, so being at the state average is still a good place to be," he said.

    Main Street Middle School in Montpelier had fewer students this time achieving the level of proficiency or above. The percentage scoring at that level on the reading exam dropped to 73 percent, from 86 percent; to 64 percent, from 71 percent, on the mathematics exam; and to 47 percent, from 70 percent, on the writing exam. Conversely the percentage scoring at proficient or above at Union Elementary rose to 77 percent, from 69 percent, in reading; dropped slightly to 77 percent, from 80 percent, in mathematics; and increased to 54 percent, from 44 percent, in writing.

    Robbe Brook, superintendent of the five-town, six-school Washington Central Supervisory Union, said she was generally satisfied with the performance of students at elementary schools in Berlin, Calais, East Montpelier, Middlesex and Worcester, as well as seventh- and eighth-graders at U-32 Junior-Senior High School.

    "Basically, we're pleased with our results," Brooke said, who noted students at all six schools performed above the state average in reading, those at four of the six were at or above the state average in math, and four of the six were above or very near the state average in writing.

    "We've made some good gains," she said, suggesting the significance of the averages was over-hyped and the true value of the test was hidden in raw data that is never made public.

    Carol Freemen, the supervisory union's director of curriculum and assessment, agreed. She said that is particularly true in a supervisory union with tiny elementary schools where the performance of a single student can account for a swing of several percentage points on the school average.

    "These tests don't give you answers, they raise questions," she said, noting that the latest results will likely prompt an analysis of the mathematics textbooks used in the supervisory union.

    Measurable declines in math scores at schools in Calais and Berlin coupled with little or no improvement in scores at schools in East Montpelier and Middlesex, as well as at U-32, have raised a red flag, Freeman said. Yet of that group, only Berlin's scores actually dropped slightly below the state average.

    "We're really measuring ourselves against ourselves," she said, echoing the sentiment expressed by Taffel when discussing Barre's results.

    "We want to make sure we have all students as well-prepared as we possibly can," she said.

    Washington Northeast Superintendent George Burlison is responsible for two schools that posted strikingly different results. Students at Twinfield Union School performed below the state average on all three exams, while their counterparts in Cabot were well above the state average across the board.

    Burlison said he hadn't reviewed any of the scores and said it was premature for him to comment on them.

    Asked if he was surprised by the wide disparity — nearly 20 percentage points on all three exams — between Twinfield and Cabot and the fact that the scores at Twinfield had all dropped since last year, Burlison replied: "It's always surprising when the numbers aren't where you want them to be."

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