Next school year, Vermont will scrap the NECAP and replace it with a new student assessment based on the Common Core State Standards. It’s more than a matter of slapping down a different test down in front of students, but officials say the state is in good shape to make the overhaul.
Vermont’s in good company during the transition — 44 other states and the District of Columbia have adopted the standards, and they are in various stages of putting them in place. Vermont is one of more than two dozen states that have signed up to use the Smarter Balance Assessment — a test modeled on the Common Core.
One school year away from when most states will make the switch to Common Core-based exams, opposition to the standards is coalescing to the point where several states have gotten cold feet. Georgia and Oklahoma bowed out in July, citing costs, and Indiana recently decided to shelve the standards for now. In Kentucky and New York, where students are already taking the new exams, proficiency levels have plummeted.
Neither Gov. Peter Shumlin nor Education Secretary, Armando Vilaseca are worried about a backlash against the standards if a similar thing occurs in Vermont.
“That isn’t my concern. I never think that rigorous standards that make sense are a destructive thing, I think they are a positive thing,” Shumlin said.
Vilaseca said he does expect proficiency levels to drop. “I do anticipate the first year or two of our assessment may show a decline. We are going to standards that are higher and more complex and ask more of our students.”
But he’s hoping it will just be a two-year blip. “I anticipate within a few years, once the schools have enacted a curriculum aligned with the Common Core, we will see scores increase above where they are now.”
The Common Core was designed to improve uniformity across state standards for kindergarten through 12th-grade and to make those standards more demanding. Supporters hope they’ll make American students better equipped for higher education and employment in a global economy.
Vilaseca said he thinks Vermont is taking a more prudent approach than New York did.
“Personally, I thought that was a huge mistake on New York’s part [switching to a Common Core exam ahead of the 2014-2015 school year]. Some schools were still trying to get their toes in the water. I don’t believe they were prepared.”
The standards “make sense,” Shumlin said, but, he added, “what concerns me, when we get into the weeds of Common Core, is ensuring that as we implement it, it doesn’t get in the way of our efforts to individualize education for every student.
“My concern about any federal mandate, including Common Core, is that it tends to take a cookie-cutter approach when we are trying to develop individualized learning.”
Common Core is not a federal mandate — the initiative was led by the National Governors Association (NGA) and the Council of Chief State School Officers (CCSSO). States adopted the standards voluntarily. The Obama administration has given states financial incentives to make the transition, however.
What’s the state Agency of Education doing to help Vermont schools dip their toes in the water? Vilaseca said the responsibility for implementing the standards lie, ultimately, with the school districts themselves.
“We try to support, we try to provide guidance, but a lot of the heavy lifting occurs at the local level,” he said.
Vilaseca and Pat Fitzsimmons, the agency’s Common Core Implementation Coordinator, say Vermont is in on track for a smooth transition, but progress is variable across districts.
Fitzsimmons’ assessment: “Schools for a variety of reasons are in a variety of different places”
“We can’t guarantee that everyone right now has adopted the NECAP standards,” Vilaseca added. “We know there are places that have not implemented some of the science standards. The expectation is they will adopt those standards, but it really is, since Vermont is made up of 280 local districts, quite often a local decision.”
But neither Vilaseca nor Fitzsimmons say they have gotten pushback from particular schools.
“I find that Vermont educators typically appreciate a challenge. For the most part, I could be out in left field, but I don’t think I am, educators are really trying to move forward in implementing these standards,” Fitzsimmons said.
Vilaseca said he had just attended teacher in-service days in Bristol and in the Chittenden East Supervisory Union, which focused heavily on planning for the Common Core implementation. “We are hearing a lot of excitement and enthusiasm for this.”
One of the most important things the agency can do to support local districts is, according to Vilaseca, to act as a conduit of information coming other states.
Fitzsimmons pointed to several entities that are working alongside the agency and school districts. They’re taking advantage of the infrastructure and the funding — some of which comes from the federal government — that’s already in place for professional development for teachers.
The state has two “Professional Learning Teams,” one for math and one for English that are composed of teachers, professional developers, curriculum coordinators, and other stakeholders. The regional meetings they hold this year will focus on Common Core implementation.
“We can’t meet with every teacher but we are hoping these leadership teams can bring it down to them,” Fitzsimmons said. Participation in the meetings is not mandatory for school districts.
The Agency also has an Implementation of State Standards Advisory Council (ISSAC), which will help oversee the transition. They’ve developed a guide with 42 “implementation steps” to direct the process.
Vilaseca said he didn’t know exactly how much the agency is spending on helping schools reorient their curriculums to the Common Core, but he estimated the costs fall around $530,000 annually. In addition to Fitzsimmons, who does Common Core work full-time, several other agency staff are involved from time to time, to a total tune of $50,000 to $60,000 in salary costs. The Agency is also providing $480,000 in financial support to the state’s education service agencies — regional partnerships between school districts or supervisory unions, higher education institutions, and service providers that offer professional development — to help them “concentrate their work on transitioning to Common Core.”
The task for Vermont is less daunting than for larger states, Vilaseca said. “I think we are actually probably better than most states. Some states are maybe are further along than this. Trying to do this in a place like California and Illinois is a littler harder when you have about a million students.”
Likewise, Shumlin said Vermont has a leg up because it’s already got a good public education system.
“The states that are really in trouble with the Common Core are the states that aren’t performing well in their public educations systems, but Vermont has one of the best education systems in the country.”