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Vermont Students Face More Testing

Ohanian Comment: Is the opening sentence hyperbole or fact? Test results rule an education system's future only if the citizenry allow it to. Late in the article the solution is provided: You don't have to accept the money.

BELLOWS FALLS -- The future of Vermont's public education system is lying on the desks of the state's school children this month.

President Bush has built his federal education law, the No Child Left Behind Act, around assessment and accountability. Under the law, pupils are assessed through standardized tests and schools are held accountable to those scores.

Second, fourth, fifth, eighth and 10th-graders in Vermont are currently taking the tests that will determine next year's results.

By the 2005-06 school year, the law requires states to test all students in third through eighth grades and to test students once in high school.

The No Child Left Behind Act requires each state to develop its tests around its curriculum standards.

Since 1998, Vermont has administered the New Standard Reference Exams for the fourth and eighth grades.

By the 2005 school year, a new test, currently being developed with educators from Rhode Island and New Hampshire, will take the place of the NSREs. Those tests, known as the Tri-State assessment, will be given to all students in grades three through eight.

The Vermont Department of Education takes the test scores, and considers other elements such as graduation rates and student participation to come up with each school's adequate yearly progress. This is the number that must improve each year.

If a school does not meet the requirements for two consecutive years, that school is penalized. The school could lose federal funds and its students could choose other schools.

After four years of non-compliance a school could be forced to replace staff, change its curriculum, or in the most extreme cases, the school could be taken over by the state or a private company.

At the Bellows Falls Middle School, much of the year's work has focused on this week's testing.

The school had suffered under two years of poor test scores, but last year's results showed improvement, and the school was taken off the state's "schools in need of improvement" list.

School principal Marcy Henry said her school received assistance from the education department, as well as from private consultants during this year.

"It was incredibly intense, and it was a lot of work for the staff, but we have big plans for (the tests) this year," Henry said. "It will be interesting to see how the kids do."

She said the school provides bottles of water, stresses sleep and a good breakfast, and tries to create a positive climate for the students to take the tests.

Critics of the federal law say it holds up an unfair benchmark for states like Vermont, where schoolchildren have consistently scored well on standardized tests. Other states are starting with significantly lower scores, which leaves a large gap to slowly cover.

Vermont will be expected to improve every year, and could face consequences if it does not, even if the state's schools are already out-performing schools in other parts of the country.

When asked if Vermont could lose its federal funds, even if it is out-performing other states, Bud Meyers from the Vermont Department of Education answered simply, "That would be possible."

Meyers said the state spends $800,000 on the tests. He estimates that figure will rise to $1.4 million in 2005.

The combined state and federal budget for the Vermont Department of Education is projected to be $13.2 million for 2005. Just over 10 percent of that budget will go toward scoring and administering the tests.

Last year, Vermont received approximately $27 million in federal funds, money that would be lost if the state voted to opt out of the requirements.

School boards and state governments across the country have been weighing the costs and benefits of the federal education law.

In Montpelier last week, Deputy Undersecretary of Education Nina Rees told members at a Statehouse meeting that the federal law is not a mandate.

"You don't have to accept the money," she told the crowd.

— Howard Weiss-Tisman
Battleboro Reformer


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