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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