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NCLB Outrages

Feedback on testing is mixed

An entire eighth-grade class from Vermont's Northeast Kingdom wrote to suggest that a writing question that referenced cell phones was "regionally biased," because cell phones don't work in their part of the state.

Ohanian Comment: It's sad to see how most educators roll over for the test, but three cheers for these eighth graders. I am trying to find out what kind of answer they got.

By Howard Weiss-Tisman

BRATTLEBORO -- The standardized tests, taken this year for the first time in grades three through eight, to meet the requirements of the federal No Child Left Behind Act, were generally an improvement over previous assessment programs, a Department of Education review found.

In October, about 42,000 students in 322 Vermont schools took the tests. It was the first year of the New England Common Assessment Program, a testing program that was developed by the Vermont, New Hampshire and Rhode Island Departments of Education.

Students in all three states took the tests in the fall.

The Vermont Department of Education collected input from more than 2,000 educators, as well as from a few students, during and after the testing.

According to the review, released Friday by the Education Department:

Eighty-two percent of the more than 2,000 teachers, who completed a questionnaire, rated the test materials as good to excellent.

Eighty-five percent of the test coordinators and principals indicated that the information provided prior to the testing was good or very good.

Nearly 85 percent of test administrators said the assessments were accessible, and said most of the students were able to take the tests, regardless of special needs.

Of the more than 1,000 items that make up the tests, there were very few criticisms of the test design -- an entire eighth-grade class from Vermont's Northeast Kingdom wrote to suggest that a writing question that referenced cell phones was "regionally biased," because cell phones don't work in their part of the state.

"Feedback on the first administration of the NECAP was mixed but generally positive. No fatal flaws in test design were uncovered," said Jill Remick, spokeswoman for the Vermont Department of Education. "We have suggested actions in this report that all levels of the system can take to improve the experience for all schools and especially for those who reported a less than positive experience."

Prior to this year, schools only tested English and math in fourth, eighth and 10th grades, writing in second, and science in fifth and ninth and 11th. One of the major concerns among educators, the review found, was the amount of time and effort it took to administer the assessments to every child in grades three through eight.

"It took a big chunk of time. It really put a speed bump on a lot of folks so early in the year," said Paul Smith, a curriculum coordinator for the Windham Southeast Supervisory Union.

Smith also said teachers in the district were surprised at how difficult the tests were. The review found that teachers thought testing third graders was "developmentally inappropriate."

"Third-grade students were not prepared for this kind of test," a principal was quoted in the report. "It's hard for this age to stay focused on tasks independently."

"It was pretty rigorous. It really challenged a lot of kids," Smith said.

But, he pointed out, federal law mandates testing in third grade.

Vermont routinely scores well on national assessments, and Smith said it is a balancing act to keep the expectations high without overwhelming a portion of the students.

"If the bar was set low, it would be all good news and all of the kids would do well," said Smith. "Other states have shorter tests that are easier and take less time. Vermont prides itself of high standards."

Kim Nace, principal of the Bellows Falls Central School, said her school's experience was accurately reflected in the Education Department's report.

"When we went to roll it out, I was pleased and the staff was pleased," Nace said. "There was definitely no outrage. No one said it was bad."

Testing more students definitely took more time, but Bob Neubauer, principal of Brattleboro's Green Street School, said it is still too early to determine if all the hassle was worth it.

The Education Department tested the students early in the year to get results back to teachers and administrators while the students were still in the class. In past years, tests were given in the spring and results were released the next year, after the class had moved on to the next grade.

Neubauer points out that test results are only one indication of academic success, and he said if the data are accurate and easy to use, the expanded testing could be useful for his school.

"If the information is good it will be helpful. We can track the kid to see progress," he said. "If it is not, it'll be a waste of time."

The test results are expected to be released in March.

— Howard Weiss-Tisman
Brattleboro Reformer


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