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NCLB Outrages

NCLB Muddle in Vermont

WHITINGHAM- School board members got a glimpse into the complex and confusing world of Vermont’s version of the No Child Left Behind Act after their school failed to make adequate yearly progress under the new law.

“To be honest, I still don’t understand all of it,” said Windham Southwest Supervisory Union Curriculum Coordinator Dan Heller of the new rules. “There are all kinds of formulas and acronyms. I’m on the phone to Montpelier all the time – and I’m starting to get it.”

Heller started his presentation with an overview of the school’s New Standards Reference Exam scores since 1997. The NSRE was instituted by the state, in part, to monitor the effectiveness of Act 60. Since the passage of the NCLBA, the state has started using NSRE scores to evaluate schools under the federal law.

Whitingham’s raw scores fluctuate a great deal from year to year, and show mixed results in some subject areas. For example, in the latest test taken by fourth grade students in the spring of 2003, 96% of students tested achieved the standard in basic math skills. Only 30%, however, achieved the standard in math concepts.

“That tells us kids are good at the basics, like adding and subtracting, but not good at solving problems that combine those skills,” Heller explained.

Board member Linda Corse noted that the school’s entire fourth grade consisted of 22 students, and objected that the school’s small class sizes made any real evaluation of the data impossible.

“Well, you’re right,” Heller said. “It isn’t really statistically valid.”

Heller also noted several trends that are mirrored in schools throughout the state. “You’ll notice the scores seem to drop as students progress through the grades – the eighth grade scores are lower than the fourth, and so on,” Heller said. “That’s typical throughout the state. By the time kids take the test in the 10th grade, there isn’t much reason for them to take it too seriously. Whether they do well on the test or not, they go on and graduate with whatever grades they earned in class.”

After reviewing the scores, Heller launched into an explanation of the formulas the state uses to assess whether each school has succeeded in demonstrating adequate yearly progress. To reach each school’s “index number,” the state assigns a certain number of points for each of the NSRE’s performance levels. For instance, a student who achieves the standard in reading analysis and interpretation earns the school 500 points and a student who achieves below the standard earns the school 100 points. The points are added up for all students in all elements of the tests, and divided by the number of students who took the test.

That formula provides the index, however, that number is not the final number from which the school must show progress. The state assigns a “confidence band” to the number; range of statistical variation over or above the actual score. The lowest number in the range of statistical variation becomes the school’s starting point for measuring adequate yearly progress.

Not only must schools’ NSRE scores show yearly progress, but the state continually raises the starting point, or “annual measurable objective.”

“The idea is every three years there’s a bump in the AMO,” Heller said. “By the year 2014, every student in Vermont should be achieving the standard on every test. Now, I’ll leave it to you to guess if that will happen. And to make the whole thing more confusing, the state doesn’t even let you start at your starting point. Instead they have another formula to tell you where the average starting point for a school your size should be.”

“How can we know what we need to do if we don’t know where we are?” asked school board chair Doug Bartlett incredulously. “I just don’t get it.”

“I think what’s missing here is what happens when the Bush administration is out of office and the next flavor of the month comes in,” commented board member
Brent Betit.Based on the 2003 figures, Whitingham School’s AMO for English language arts was 380; adjusting for the state’s “confidence band” the school’s lowest acceptable score for adequate yearly progress was 354. With an “index score” of 346 on the 2003 English language portion of the test, Whitingham failed to meet the standard for adequate yearly progress.

In math, however, the story was different. Whitingham’s math “index” was 293, well above the “confidence band” minimum of 258. Math scores notwithstanding, however, Whitingham School still failed to make adequate yearly progress.

Heller said Whitingham’s failure to make adequate yearly progress for the second year in a row could prove dangerous. “That’s when things start to happen to you,”

Heller said. “There are a number of things that can happen. You can lose funding; eventually if a school is in trouble long enough, the state can come in and take over the school.” Heller noted that the state estimates there could be as many as 140 schools identified as “in need of assistance” by 2010.

Despite a statistical system that appears stacked against a small school like Whitingham, Heller left board members with some hope. He pointed out that the NSRE results also provide an analysis of the areas in which students need more work. Heller said he looked at previous years’ NSRE results and identified several areas in which it appeared students had difficulty year after year.

“This is a road map,” Heller said. “They’re giving you the suggestion, and I recommend you do it. Work on these areas.”

— Mike Eldred
Deerfield Valley News


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