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Chicken Little and state test scores

By William J. Mathis

Chicken Little has now clucked for a half-century that the education sky is falling. She started with Sputnik in 1957. "If we don't fix the schools, the communists will win!" The 1983 Nation at Risk panic said the United States would not be able to compete if we didn't fix the schools. Since then, the communist world collapsed and the United States is ranked first in international competitiveness. Perhaps we should question Chicken Little's judgment.

Nevertheless, Vermont's release of state test results, yet again, claims the sky is falling. As evidence, the commissioner notes the percent passing has been "flat" over the past three years and that 30 to 37 percent of students are failing. To fix the sky, he says we need to "transform" our schools by college alliances and hands-on approaches such as boat-building. Apparently, the state is unaware of the vast number of college alliances and alternative programs in Vermont schools. (Boat building is a wonderful learning activity, but how it will improve writing test scores was not explained.)

Alas, the state simply misinterpreted its own test scores.

Let's put the scores in perspective. Schools administer the National Assessment of Education Progress tests. The scores on this federal government test show year after year that Vermont scores consistently well above national averages in reading, writing, mathematics and science. In math, our score advantage continues to accelerate. Overall, we rank third highest in the nation (nces.ed.gov/nationsreportcard).

"But," says Chicken Little, "we are talking about international competitiveness!" Fortunately, there is evidence on how Vermont ranks internationally. The Program for International Assessment (PISA) tests eighth grade students in reading and mathematics from all the advanced nations. The American Institutes for Research plotted each of the U.S. state's performance on the international scale. Vermont stacked up sixth in mathematics and tied for sixth in science. If you subtract the city-states of Singapore and Hong Kong, our rank moves up to fourth (www.air.org).

To say Vermont education is in need of a "transformation" on the basis of these test scores doesn't fit the facts. While there are real problems in Vermont education (and we must guard against complacency), our world-class performance is cause for celebration.

So how did the state Education Department miss it so badly? It's simple. Vermont has extraordinarily high standards even by world benchmarks. For example, we can improve the percentage of eighth-grade students who can jump a 3-foot bar by coaching and practice. However, if we "raise the bar" to 5 feet, there won't be many who pass and the percent passing won't get much better next year ΓΆ€” no matter how hard we try. And this explains why the percent passing the state NECAP tests is "flat" ΓΆ€” even though we are an educational super-power.

Commissioner Cate correctly notes we are unlikely to get large improvements to our current scores. Yet the state embraces the No Child Left Behind law, which increases the height of the bar every three years. The inevitable result is guaranteed: In time, each of our world-class schools will be declared a failure.

That said, we cannot ignore that some teachers and schools do not perform at the level they should. Used properly, there is a place for standardized tests in monitoring school quality. But this is not our greatest problem. As the commissioner notes, it is the achievement gap between our more affluent and less affluent children.

That is where we must transform our system. Fortunately, there are rich and clear research findings to guide us. Unfortunately, our state policies don't follow this research. Poverty plays too small a role in the state aid formula while we know poorer communities are less able to spend money on schools. Small learning communities are a vital factor, yet the state is driving a consolidation agenda. We have early education programs, but state law will ratchet down enrollments while harshly discouraging these programs through needless bureaucracy. Quality after-school programs are essential, but establishing or even shifting resources into this area is increasingly difficult with budget caps. Summer programs are needed, but there is no funding, and the state calendar is a new obstacle. Due to declining enrollments, we have small class sizes, but Act 82 will erase this advantage. When it comes to closing the achievement gap, state policies do not match state rhetoric.

If we truly want to "transform" education, leave no child behind, and have high test scores, we will not reach this goal by Chicken Little test score alarms. We must invest in a coordinated, focused and sustained set of programs for the neediest of our children. Then we would not only be a world-class educational superpower, we would be what we should be ΓΆ€” the best in the world.

William J. Mathis is superintendent of schools for the Rutland Northeast Supervisory Union with offices in Brandon.

— William J. Mathis
Rutland Herald


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