School test scores show decline in proficiency

BARRE — Education officials are warning the public not to jump to any conclusions just because the latest K-12 standardized test scores show a decline in proficiency.

On Monday, the Agency of Education released scores for the newest incarnation of standardized testing known as the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium (SBAC), which is intended to measure proficiency of students in grades three through eight — and grade 11 — the fields of math and English.

Overall, proficiency in English ranged from a low of 51 percent in grade four to 58 percent in 11th grade. Math scores, on the other hand, showed a near-steady decline across grades, from 52 percent proficient in grade three to 37 percent in grade 11.

These scores are lower than those from the last round of testing, said Michael Hock, director of assessment for the Agency of Education.

“Across grades and content levels, the differences were as much as 20 percentage points,” Hock said.

While the proficiency scores are lower than the those from the last round of testing, officials with the Agency of Education made a point of noting the error of comparing the two.

For one, the test itself is new. Previously, students were testing using the New England Common Assessment Program, or NECAP. While a handful of students had previously taken SBAC as part of a pilot program in 2014, nearly all of the state’s students took the test for the first time this spring.

Second, the SBAC test is based on the common core state standards, which resulted in a test that was much more difficult than its predecessor. For example, the English portion of the NECAP consisted of reading comprehension, while the SBAC test included reading, writing, listening and research components.

And the method of testing was new to most students as well. While the prior tests were administered with paper and pencil, the SBAC is computer based, which required some elementary school students in the Northeast Kingdom to be bussed to area high schools to take the test.

Because of these factors, officials with the Agency of Education expected this round of test scores to be lower than previous test scores.

“The fact that our proficiency levels are lower is exactly what we expected. This is because the Smarter Balanced is a much harder test. It is not because our teachers or our students are doing worse,” said Education Secretary Rebecca Holcombe. “When you raise expectations, it’s not surprising when fewer students achieve them.”

On the up side, students performed better than expected, Hock said.

“At one grade level, kids scores were 17 points higher than projected,” Hock said. “Our kids are about halfway between the NECAP scores and what we projected.”

Annual testing is a federal requirement under the Elementary and Secondary Education act, commonly referred to as “No Child Left Behind” or “No Child Left Untested.” Holcombe took issue with the way the scores are required to be reported, which identify a student as “proficient” or “not proficient.”

“If you’re telling a child they’re not proficient, the message is always that you haven’t measured up,” Holcombe said. “We’re trying to de-emphasize that and trying to emphasize how much they’re growing.”

Hock said the state is moving toward a method of student of assessment that is not based on an arbitrary cut-off number to determine who is proficient and who is not, and toward a method that instead measures individual progress.

“It’s more valuable to measure how much a student is learning than it is to compare this year’s third grade class with last year’s third grade class,” Hock said.

Holcombe also addressed a poll released last week from PDK/Gallup showing the majority of Americans believe there is too much emphasis on standardized testing in public schools.

“I think this country does place far too much emphasis on testing,” Holcombe said. “I think we are not using tests appropriately as a country and I think there are places, less in Vermont than in some other states, where it’s really eroding the quality and the integrity of what we call education. I think the challenge is using a test for what it is appropriate for, and decreasing the volume of testing.”

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