Southshire schools lag behind state on SBAC test scores

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BENNINGTON — County schools scored lower than their counterparts across the state on the 2016-2017 Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium exams, according to a report released Wednesday by the Vermont Agency of Education.

Last spring, in the Southwest Vermont Supervisory Union which includes the Bennington, Mount Anthony, North Bennington, Pownal, Shaftsbury and Woodford school districts, 2,822 tests were submitted, 996 of which (35.29 percent) came back as proficient or higher.

In the Battenkill Valley Supervisory Union, which includes the Arlington and Sandgate school districts, 375 tests were submitted and 138, (36.80 percent) came back proficient or higher. These numbers compare unfavorably to the state as a whole, which saw 48.47 percent of its 83,277 tests scored as proficient or higher.

The compiled local data does not include Woodford Hollow Elementary School or the sixth grade class of the Village School of North Bennington, as the number of students tested was too small to be statistically meaningful and was not included in the state's report.

Broken down by individual school, 59.09 percent of tests from Monument Elementary in Bennington came back as proficient or higher, compared to 45.92 percent at the Village School of North Bennington, 44.69 percent at Mount Anthony Union High School, 41.20 percent at Shaftsbury Elementary School, 40.67 percent at Arlington Memorial Middle and High School, 37.67 percent at Pownal Elementary School, 31.97 percent at Mount Anthony Union Middle School, 31.93 percent at Fisher Elementary School in Arlington, 26.56 percent at Molly Stark Elementary School in Bennington, and 22.52 percent at Bennington Elementary School.

The SBAC exams are designed "to assess student mastery of the Common Core State Standards for English Language Arts and Mathematics," said the Agency of Education in a press release. "These standards are deliberately ambitious, to ensure we have high expectations for our students. Over time, the results will provide community members, teachers, and parents with an increasingly reliable and accurate snapshot of children's mastery of these standards as well as the progress of our schools at improving the performance of our students relative to these standards."

Overall, according to the Agency of Education, test scores are down slightly from last year, a phenomenon that mirrored similar decreases in other SBAC states this year. This is the third year that all Vermont schools have participated in the exam for math and English, after switching from the New England Common Assessment Program. The math and English tests are taken once a year from grades three through eight, and again in eleventh grade. The tests are "computer adaptive," meaning that the tests adjust the difficulty of the test question based on how a test taker responds to each successive question.

"If a student answers incorrectly, for example, the computer delivers a slightly easier question," said the agency. "If the student answers correctly, the next question is a bit harder. This process continues until the best possible prediction of a student's ability is determined. This means very few children take a test that feels too hard or too easy. It also means the test can provide a more precise measure of what students can and cannot do."

"The relationship between strong academic skills and financial security and well-being is stronger than it has ever been, regardless of whether our students are headed to careers or college when they graduate," said Vermont Secretary of Education Rebecca Holcombe. "Tests don't measure everything that matters to a happy and successful life, including our ability to participate in democratic life, but there is no path to prosperity for students who don't master reading, writing, and mathematics. We were disappointed to see those score declines."

One large factor in test scores can be family income level. In the statewide data, students who meet the family income requirements for free and reduced lunch on average scored 15-20 percentage points lower than the average of the total student body. Across the state in grades three through five about 43 percent of the students who took the SBAC qualified for free and reduced lunch. At Molly Stark Elementary, for example, that number is much higher, around 78 percent.

"The achievement gaps between our vulnerable youth and students with greater privilege remain, and in some cases were narrowed, but this was largely a result of score declines for more privileged groups," said Holcombe, "As we work to implement more personalized learning and flexible pathways, we need to make sure we continue to challenge and engage all our students, while providing the extra support our more vulnerable children need to thrive. And, we need to support our schools and teachers as they figure out how to support better learning outcomes."

This is the first year scores will be used to calculate the growth measures in the state plan for the federal Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA). The scores are used to determine where federal dollars will make the greatest difference, according to the Agency of Education.

When all students have higher levels of mastery, we all benefit from that greater productivity, Deputy Secretary Amy Fowler said. "We can't know for sure why scores declined, but several factors could contribute," she said. "It could be in the last year people were focused on issues other than assessment. It could be as people are moving to implement the Education Quality Standards and other initiatives, attention has been diverted from improving learning, or any other number of factors."

SVSU Superintendent Jim Culkeen did not return an email seeking comment on Wednesday.

Reach staff writer Derek Carson at 802-447-7567, ext. 122 or @DerekCarsonBB

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