Vermont’s Agency of Education has just released statewide results for standardized tests in language arts and math given in grades three through eight, and eleven. In general it would appear that Vermont students improve in language arts as they progress through school, with about 54 percent of third graders achieving proficiency, and almost 59 percent of eighth graders hitting that mark. In math, though, students seem to lose skills over time, from a 56 percent proficiency level in third grade to a 38 percent proficiency level in 11th grade.
If those scores seem disappointing, Secretary Rebecca Holcomb says Vermonters should remember that this new test - it’s called The Smarter Balanced and it’s taken entirely online - measures skills and knowledge that haven’t yet been fully acquired at all grade levels, under new federal curriculum guidelines called the Common Core. Plus, the new exams are just plain harder than the ones kids used to take, several years ago. Holcomb doesn’t want Vermonters to use these results to measure schools. Rather, she wants teachers to use the scores to help improve their teaching, and student learning.
That’s a fair point. A student’s family background and circumstances do factor into these results. In some schools, the majority of first graders arrive knowing how to read. In others, they need lots of remedial instruction. So test scores from those two districts sometimes reflect a gulf in socio-economic status that not even the best teachers can bridge.
It’s also true that some smart children are lousy test takers. And the line between “proficient” and “non-proficient” in any subject is, necessarily, arbitrary. Moreover, on a single test, one point can make the difference between a high score, and a lower one. That’s why assessment experts say scores are most meaningful when tracked over time, so that trends can be discerned.
Here’s one worrying trend, though. The latest scores show a continuing achievement gap between students who qualify for free or reduced lunch, and their more financially secure peers. There are also disparities based on ethnicity and disability—all signs that while Vermont does pretty well, on a national scale, within the state we should still strive for educational equity, as we march toward school district consolidation.