State: Three-quarters of schools fail to meet NCLB standards

Armando Vilaseca. VTD/Josh Larkin
Armando Vilaseca. VTD file photo/Josh Larkin

This story is by by Randolph T. Holhut and was published first in The Commons.

BRATTLEBORO — Nearly three-quarters of Vermont’s schools — 198 in all — did not meet the standards for adequate yearly progress (AYP) this year.

With 73 percent of Vermont’s schools judged as “failing” under the school accountability determinations required by the federal No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB), Deputy Education Commissioner John Fischer says that term is a misguided label if there ever was one.

“We are now trying to work in this system that is clearly broken,” he said.

Twenty-three schools found themselves on the list, released on Monday by the Vermont Department of Education, for the first time.

According to the Vermont Department of Education, a school makes AYP by meeting targets set by the state as required by NCLB. In Vermont, these targets increase every three years with the goal of 100 percent proficiency by 2014.

AYP determinations are based on the New England Common Assessment Program (NECAP) assessments and the Vermont Alternate Assessment Portfolio (VTAAP) given to Vermont public school students in grades 3-8 and grade 11.

The NECAP was administered in October 2011. This is the seventh year the NECAP has been given in the elementary and middle grades, and the fifth time it was given to students in grade 11.

A school that does not make AYP for two consecutive years in the same indicator enters School Improvement status, which requires schools to take specific actions designed to improve student achievement in the area(s) designated as not making AYP.

So why is the list of schools failing to reach the AYP goals so crowded?

According to the Department of Education, 2011 marked the final target increase (before the 100 percent proficiency goal) in Vermont. As a result, there was a significant increase in the number of schools that did not make AYP.

While there are no formal consequences for those schools, NCLB forces compliance because a state’s Title I education funds for programs aimed at low-income children are at risk if states fail to take action under NCLB. In Vermont’s case, that’s around $50 million.

While Vermont routinely places at or near the top of national surveys ranking educational performance, the AYP numbers would seem, on the surface, to be at odds with the state’s reputation for schooling excellence.

“Vermont has maintained high standards and a rigorous assessment of those standards,” said Education Commissioner Armando Vilaseca on Monday.

“It is not surprising that as we get closer to the 2014 NCLB expectation of 100 percent proficiency, we will continue to see more schools not meeting AYP,” Vilaseca said. “Our plan has always been to design a system that does not stress a single measure using a standardized test to determine our students’, our schools’, or our state’s success in meeting standards.”

Part of that change is making the transition to the Common Core State Standards in mathematics and English language arts and literacy, which have been adopted by Vermont and 44 other states.

State education officials say this system, which will be adopted by the spring of 2015, will provide better multiple measures of student achievement than the NCLB standards. It will replace the NECAP tests now given to Vermont students in math, reading, writing, and science each year.

Earlier this year, Vermont sought a waiver from the federal Department of Education to gain some flexibility in meeting the NCLB goals, but the state Board of Education abandoned the effort when it was discovered that the state would still be required to do annual standardized testing.

Poverty and achievement

A major factor at many of the schools that failed to reach the AYP standards is the number of students living in poverty.

While the recent Kids Count report, by the Annie E. Casey Foundation, reports positive figures for Vermont’s young in health care, family and community, and education, indicators for economic well-being are less positive.

Ranked 12th in the nation for economic health for children, Vermont saw increases in child poverty and children in households burdened by high housing costs.

Gov. Peter Shumlin interacts with children at Montpelier's Family Center, a center for early child-care education, in July. VTD file photo/Nat Rudarakanchana

According to official government data compiled by the national Kids Count program, Vermonters under 18 living in households making less than the federal poverty line increased sharply from 13 percent in 2009 to 17 percent in 2010, a faster percentage increase than in any other year in the past decade.

At 17 percent, Vermont (the latest year for which data is available from Kids Count) compares poorly with several neighboring states. New Hampshire’s poverty rate is 10 percent, Connecticut’s is 13 percent, and Massachusetts’ is 14 percent. Maine and Rhode Island have slightly higher rates than Vermont, at 18 percent and 19 percent, respectively.

The increasing rates of Vermont children in households suffering from food insecurity is also noteworthy. In 2002, the share of such children stood at 15 percent, rising steadily to 21 percent in 2010.

Noting that about 95,000 Vermonters are on 3SquaresVT, the state’s food stamp program, Department of Children and Families Commissioner Dave Yacavone acknowledged a “dramatic increase” in enrollment over the last three years. He said his department emphasized community outreach to ensure that more children eligible for food assistance actually enroll.

But increasing enrollment “doesn’t happen overnight,” said Yacavone.

Moreover, he explained, federal funding for food stamps could be in danger because of proposals in the House of Representatives, though Yacavone hoped the Senate could prevent such cuts.

Vilaseca wants to offer free or reduced breakfast and lunch at school for all children who need food, but he said a stigma still surrounds assistance. He said more children have been receiving free and reduced lunch, but he added that there isn’t enough funding to easily expand the program.

According to Yacavone, the governor allocated an additional $3 million in his budget this year for child-care services, and he also hired 27 social workers over two years, the largest increase in child welfare services, as far as Yacavone could remember.

A failed system

Talk to educators, principals, superintendents, school board, and education officials in Vermont, and it’s clear they think it is the misguided law itself, not Vermont schools, that is failing in myriad ways.

“It’s fundamentally flawed. It was destined for every school in the United States to fail,” said Vermont School Board’s Association Chair Steve Dale.

Vilaseca has said using a one-day test such as NECAP to assess the full range of student skills and learning is not “credible,” saying it’s “very shallow and not accurate.”

“It’s very disappointing. No local school likes to be labeled ‘failing,’” says Dale, adding that “is hugely demoralizing and a disservice to principals and teachers and to schools boards, and it is misleading to the public. This term has now become meaningless. It’s not reflective of reality.”

NCLB sets out a gradation of sanctions that grow increasingly more harsh for consistently failing schools. At first, they call for supplemental services and curriculum assistance to be provided to help failing schools, but continued missed benchmarks can mean school restructuring, staff and principal replacement, district reorganization and even taking over operation of the school.

States do have flexibility in applying sanctions, and Vermont has yet to punish any school district. According to Vilaseca, there is widespread agreement in Vermont that NECAP scores don’t give a complete picture of school performance, and that its difficult to replace a principal in a small state where school administrators are hard to come by.

Instead, Vermont has chosen to intervene by means of “technical assistance,” helping schools change curriculums, improve their teaching and staffing and make administrative changes.

Despite criticism of the NLCB standards, Fischer has said that it is not acceptable that, in 2012, fewer than half of Vermont students tested proficient in science and math.

“By any measure, we have some math issues in the state,” he says.

For Vermont parents and students, Vilaseca says the message is that the stress on accountability in education “is not going away” — nor should it.

But he’s hopeful that the new testing system and any federal changes will set a broader measure of student progress than a single snapshot taken one day out of the year.

“This is an evolutionary process. It’s a step up from where we are now, and I am sure it will improve in the future,” he says.

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  • MJ Farmer

    Please adopt HS graduation standards like Mass or NY State (Mcass/Regents). It is unbelievable that a student can graduate in Vermont and not know basic multiplication, spelling, percentages and how to fill out a job application! My kid had HS Honors Chemistry (B+) and did not know what a mole was.

  • Hod Palmer,

    If the kids can’t read, write or do mathematics when they are in high school, that is failure no matter what law compels them to test. So blame the test or the law all you want, but its a smoke screen for the schools’ fundamental failures.

  • Sally Kieny

    100% proficiency is an impossible goal for any school to meet. There are so many children with learning disabilities and other medical conditions that make it difficult if not impossible to learn like other children. Many of these (maybe all, I’m not sure) are required to take these NECAP tests. Until you have a child with such a condition, one shouldn’t throw stones at the schools.

  • Lee Stirling

    I really and truly do understand that we live in an interdependent society where those who can pay must subsidize those who can’t. This is the case in health care for example where cost-shifting occurs such that in order to offset the “free” care hospitals provide to uninsured and underinsured, they bill insurance companies more and more for services to those who are insured. The end result is higher premiums and deductibles for those who have insurance, making the cost of insurance harder to bear. Cost-shifting also occurs in schools where those who do meet or exceed the standards are subsidizing those who don’t. More and more resources and staff are directed towards bringing up the performance of struggling students while those who are proficient lose out on potential enrichment those resources could have offered. The end result is a shift toward the lower end of the performance spectrum at the expense of the upper end. Merely “good” performance will be considered “great” and nobody will be truly special because everyone will deserve to be.

    • krister adams

      Mr. Stirling: What would you have society do? Ignore struggling students and focus only on those believed to be on the achievement track? This would have been a bummer for many inventors/innovators/entepeneurs, etc (i.e.Lee Iococca). Same goes for health care. If those who can’t afford insurance frequent emergency rooms or “free” clinics your and my premiums take a hit. But if we adopt Obama’s Healthcarwe initiative, everyone will have insurance and it will be, by simple economies of scale, more affordable.

      • Lee Stirling

        What I would have society do is recognize that, in public school, high performers deserve as much effort and as many resources as low performers. That is not to say that we must abandon struggling students but we should at least attempt realize everyone’s potential for success whatever that may be. If “success” for one student is to score an acceptable grade on the NECAP test, let’s work to realize it. If “success” for another student is to take and pass courses beyond their grade level or to take part in an independent study curriculum that sets them apart from their peers, let’s work to realize it. It is merely my opinion that everyone deserves to be the focus at some point and I just don’t think this is happening, to the detriment of those who could really soar with a little more attention and support.

  • David Usher

    What’s muddled in this debate is whether the standards are ‘too high,’ or their application not properly taught or tested. We know our entertainment culture and the disintegration of many families surely has a negative effect on learning.

    Yet through all this we continue to spend mightily on public education. If the testing and performance system is broken as educators allege, it’s incumbent upon them to devise a system that properly prepares students for a life of achievement and demonstrate to the taxpayers that it works.

  • Julie Hansen

    With regard to students identified with disabilities and the NECAP testing, students do receive accommodations and the testing agency is informed of that. I can’t accept that we cannot do a better job educating our children. 100% “proficiency” should be attainable. Proficiency is a range that allows for some incorrect answers. 100% proficiency does not mean that students must be accurate with every answer.

    I do like Mr. Usher’s comment that those who are opposed to the test could devise a system. We have to be able to measure what we do.


    “We are now trying to work in this system that is clearly broken,” he said.

    My question is why are we still trying to work within this system.

    We just read an article praising Milton Friedman. Let me quote the article.
    Let parents have an education voucher, like the GI Bill, to spend at the school that they believe is best suited to meet the needs of their children; then let all sorts of schools compete for empowered consumers. That consumer choice and provider competition model is making great progress in states like Wisconsin, Ohio, Indiana, Louisiana, and Arizona. (In Vermont, it’s a constant battle against bureaucrats and the teachers union just to preserve the tuition town choice system in place since 1859.)

    If the system is broken, let us roll up our sleeves and come up with a system that does work, bar none

  • I would offer two things that can be instituted immediately that will offer the kind of changes required:

    Change Supervisory Unions into Service Unions. Currently Supervisory Unions exist to provide services and supervision – today’s SU is the boss of the district. Remove the supervisory part of that equation and allow districts to hire the new Service Union (Supervisory minus the supervisory part) that will provide the best fit services to that particular district.

    Doing this will remove the Superintendent as the CEO and elevate the district/building principal to that position; and it will empower the teachers below any decent or better principal by removing an unnecessary layer of oversight and decision making. We need to empower those folks who are closest to the students – the teachers and principals.

    The new Service Unions will start off pretty much as they are now – providing curriculum development and training, business services, negotiation support, etc. The differences will evolve over time as different districts search out the best fit for different needs.

    It is vital that this be allowed to happen in a way that is defined by districts searching out needs – not by the state determining how many and what.

    There will also have to be a rejiggering of the legal relationship between school boards and principals – and this would be a good time better define the elected boards’ responsibilities as oversight and general policy making.

    Of course that is just the short version. I’d be happy to expand.

    The second – and easiest – change to implement would be to respect the desires of the local communities when it comes to their wishes regarding their local school districts. I’m talking about North Bennington as part of this but only as part. The legislature has to put into law a statement that Vermont policy is to respect the wishes of the school that hosts the local community.

    • Stu Lindberg

      Rama Schnieder,
      Excellent ideas and commentary. I like it.

  • Margaret Lipscomb

    I do not understand why none of the current chatter about Vermont K-12 schools discuss the upcoming implementation of the K-12 Common Core State Standards. This has already been committed to by the state legislature, with a timeline for implementation. How much (if any) will it help? Will it reduce the amount of time spent in non-academic activities (supposedly for enrichment purposes)such as planting gardens, cooking, etc.? These are nice, to be sure, but isn’t it more important to be able to do your math problems…? A school is not a settlement house and should not be treated as such, or academic learning will suffer. The challenged students will probably do little better, the able students will be held back, and the median will move lower.

  • Pasquale Bottiglieri

    A school, by definition, is a system designed to implement and support the learning process. A classroom, a subsystem in that process, is designed and driven by the teacher assigned and is substantively limited to a specific subject area.

    The learning process is delicately balanced between the teachers ability to communicate subject knowledge and, most of all, the focus and receptive/retentive capability of the students in the classroom at any point in time.

    Without question, all students have the right to an education. For many reasons, however, it is not possible or even reasonable to expect that all students will be ready or able to participate in the learning process at all times.

    Students experiencing the reality of poverty, the lack of adequate food, clothing and possibly even shelter or personal safety, udoubtedly will experience real difficulty especially if they are mixed with students who are relatively better off. In fact, where poverty based deprivation exists, the essential value of algebra, history and even reading may not be as readily apparent as it would be to a student from a stable family system.

    The learning process in this environment, specifically where students from widely differing support related backgrounds are mixid in classrooms strictly bounded by standardized testing, is, in my opinion, seriously threatened.

    I have personally provided teaching in General Science for at risk, in lieu of expulsion students in classrooms wherein I had absolute latitude to shape and mold lesson plans based on the day to day fluctuations in student attention, attitude, focus and behavior. I was not restricted by standardized testing. I found that, provided I was at times content to simply have ignited an otherwise non-existent desire to learn, I was, in fact, able to acquire definable results.

    Once in the “main stream”, I was faced with classes of widely differing fundamental backgrounds, poverty laden at risk students, students from relatively stable families, and students who, for reasons of their own simply did not want to be there, all under the gun of standardized testing.

    My comment therefore is that, in the cases where the type of diversity in question exists, unless the learning process is fundamentally flexible, allowing for modulation on a student by student basis specifically and most definitely where specific learning objectives are concerned, the process will not succeed.

  • Elizabeth Champagne

    Excuse me, but I’m stuck at the paragraph where the author states that Vermont’s rate of children in poverty increased from 13% in 2009 to 17% in 2010.

    Did I misunderstand? Or, am I reading correctly—and therefore concluding that our rate jumped exactly 4%, well below the increase in rates of child poverty New Hampshire, Connecticut, and Massachusetts rate increases—and leaving Vermont close to Maine and Rhode Island.

    That is, the author informs readers that in these two states (New England’s largest and its smallest) child poverty rates in 2010 were 18% and 19%. I note that the author’s use of percentages changes, in this paragraph, from states’ rates of increase in their child poverty rates, to other states’ actual 2010 child poverty rates, without any acknowledgment whatever of this switch.)

    I am troubled by what is either sloppy writing or sloppy math, or both, leading to mushy information instead of clarity on the matter—which, after all, centers on the mastery of basic writing and mathematics.

    • Hi Elizabeth,
      Thanks for writing. I have clarified this section of the story. Yes, there was a 4 percent increase in Vermont’s child poverty rate between 2009 and 2010.
      At 17 percent, Vermont’s poverty rate among children is higher than the rates reported for New Hampshire (10 percent) and Massachusetts (14 percent), and lower than those reported for Maine (18 percent) and Rhode Island (19 percent).

  • While poverty is a very important factor, stability of family structures, it seems to me, is a much more important factor that needs to be examined in order to meet the needs of emotionally and physically abused and abandoned students.

    • krister adams

      Poverty breeds unstable families. Poverty is the root of many bigtime problems. Instability, abuse, alcholism, domestic violence, drugs, etc., etc.If this is not recognized and appropriately dealt with, how can family stability be dealt with?

  • David Gross

    The first comment, by M J Farmer on August 8th, is the most relevant. We need to have a state-wide “regency” test before a high school hands out a diploma. Few people in these discussions realize that there are no consequences for the individual students taking Vermont’s assessment tests. If a student tries their very best or just randomly fills in dots, it is accepted as a measure of student learning.

    A “regency” diploma would go a long way to eliminating the problems of “teaching for the test”, “grade inflation”, and “everyone passes”. Administrators, teachers, parents, and especially students would realize that only true learning matters; that the tests that they take at the end of their secondary school education will measure what knowledge they have RETAINED, regardless of what and how it was presented and evaluated beforehand.

    That being said, it is my opinion that such one-time, mostly multiple choice tests are valid only to measure basic or minimum competency, not the total education gained by the student. This is primarily due to the fact that a test must be specifically designed to measure a feature, and there is little agreement on what a “full, well rounded education” would look like; for instance how would one assign the relative valuation of Music versus Math? What the “regency” diploma would change is our present system where nearly everyone graduates, even though many cannot apply basic math skills or comprehend the significance of a news story. Even our best students who go on to college are found to be woefully underprepared. One need only research the increase in the number of remedial courses required at these institutions to know that our present system underserves students across the entire spectrum of individual talents and abilities.

    In short, I view a diploma much like a driver’s license. It does not affirm an individual’s driving ability, only that they possessed and demonstrated the basic knowledge and skills of driving when tested. After that, it is up to the individual driver to decide how much they will improve their skills, which direction to travel, and how far to go.


    There are those who will help and those who will not. I think the outcome of our educational system depends upon those who really care about each other.

  • Elizabeth Champagne

    Thank you, Mr. Barnham.

    We are in a competitive society that sets people in conflict. In the first-grade classroom where I worked as a para-educator, the teacher loudly denounced a student’s decision to give his snack milk to another who had none, telling the “caring” child, “Your parents paid for this!”

    What values can children learn in such instances? Recalling that at the time Hitler took power, Germans were, in fact, the best educated people in Europe, we may want to examine how our schools integrate character development into their programs.

    As for poverty being at the root of “many big-time problems,” let’s stop pretending that “instability, abuse, alcoholism, domestic violence, drugs, etc.” disappear as incomes rise, when in fact families at all socio-economic levels have these problems. They are the problems that arise in our competitive economic system, which puts “success,” not people, or the strength and resilience of communities, first!

  • Howard Ires

    The creators of NCLB were a bunch of math challenged hypocrites legislating the impossible. 100% proficiency in a school is no more achievable than 100% efficiency in an engine, the law was designed so that all public schools would eventually fail.

    This means nothing to the folks who brought this stupidity on us, since their kids go to private schools which have no obligation to test their kids or certify their teachers.

    If standardized tests were so great don’t you think that all the elite private schools would be testing kids too?