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Low Income Students Lag Behind in Montpelier

MONTPELIER - The city's school assessment numbers tell a Dickensian tale, not of two cities, but rather two school groups.

For most kids at the Union Elementary, Main Street Middle and Montpelier High school, it is the best of times in terms of student performance, but for those from lower-income families, the story is a bleaker one.

Overall numbers are high, with exceptional performance at the high school, but a closer look shows that students from lower-income brackets lag far behind both their statewide peers and their wealthier Montpelier classmates at the elementary and middle-school levels.

There were not enough students from lower-income brackets in the class tested at the high school to comprise a statistically valid sample.

"With kids that are not doing well, we look just like the state averages or actually a little worse," said superintendent John Everitt. "We're not happy about these kids."

According to an email from Everitt, "Our most significant initiative is building teacher capacity to meet the needs of students with a broad range of skills. School Action Plans have literacy and mathematics as two concern areas where we are exploring ways to improve with all students. We also have Title I services to support students not making adequate progress. Another effort is a teacher leader program where selected teachers are doing extra work in each school to find ways to improve student performance."

Children receiving free or reduced lunches (an indication of families with lower-incomes) at Union Elementary and Montpelier Middle School are an average of 25-30 percentage points behind those who can afford to buy lunch at those schools, and a startling 52 points behind those peers in meeting the state standard for middle-school math skills.

While a drop-off between socioeconomic groups is a statewide trend, the difference at Montpelier is dramatic, and lower-income students there perform worse than other lower-income students in the state.

Montpelier was one of several area school districts cited for failure to make adequate yearly progress. Everitt pointed to the low scores of students receiving free or reduced lunches as the reason for this citation.

"There were 668 Montpelier students tested last spring in the Vermont Assessment System," he said. Of those students, 116 receive support in our lunch program because of the level of their household income. The average score of this group was less than the score required by the State Department of Education to meet the No Child Left Behind definition of adequate yearly progress."

At Union Elementary School, according to the Department of Education's Web site, 23 percent of the 412 students received free and reduced lunches in 2002-03, while 20 percent of the 301 students at the middle school level received food aid. Only 15 percent of high school students get free and reduced lunches. And in the high school tenth-grade class assessed for English and Math ability, there were less than 10 students receiving free and reduced lunches, making their combined statistics too small a sample to be valid.

While lower-income students struggled, most of the rest of Montpelier's students thrived at least by relative standards, meeting or breaking the state averages in the majority of statistical categories.

Overall, at the high school level, students met or exceeded the state averages in all nine assessments. The story was less ideal at Union where students met the state average in four out of nine categories, with mathematics problems standing out as the largest issue.

Mathematics numbers were 10 percentage points lower than state averages for students at the Union Elementary School. In math concepts and problem solving an average of only 33.5 percent of students met or exceeded the state standard. Statewide, an average of 43 percent of students hit the mark.

Females and students from lower-income families students made up the bulk of that shortcoming, as girls were 11 points off the statewide numbers in math concepts, 18 points off in problem solving and 17 points off in math skills. Only six percent of students receiving free or reduced lunches made the standard in math concepts and problem solving and were off more than 39 percentage points from their statewide peers in math skills.

"In mathematics we need to do some work, everybody understands that," Everitt said. "But we have a clear idea of the objectives."

Numbers at Union were particularly encouraging, however, in science and early reading. In the science assessment, 56 percent of fifth-graders met or exceeded the state standards, compared to 46 percent statewide. An early reading assessment showed that nearly 90 percent of students at Union are on track for literacy.

Main Street Middle School's assessments lined up close to the state averages in nearly every category, but eighth-grade boys at the school struggled in English. Girls performed particularly well in math, raising the question of whether elementary school deficits were being corrected in middle school, or whether the current elementary school students are having a tougher time at the subject than their predecessors.

"We don't have an answer to that yet," said Everitt. "I can say that we are more supportive than we've ever been, and more concerned than ever before."

— Patrick Joy
Low Income Students Lag Behind in Montpelier
Times Argus


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