SBAC test a must for federal funding, AOE Secretary says

Rebecca Holcombe

Vermont Education Secretary Rebecca Holcombe. Photo by Amy Ash Nixon/VTDigger

School districts that do not administer the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium (SBAC) test will jeopardize their federal funding stream, Agency of Education Secretary Rebecca Holcombe informed school superintendents, principals and the Vermont School Board Association in a memo this week.

The new federally mandated test will be administered for the first time this spring to students in grades 3-8 and 10, said Jill Remick, the spokeswoman for the Vermont Agency of Education, on Thursday. The SBAC test aligns with the Common Core State Standards that measure student progress toward college and career readiness.

The new test has stirred controversy and pushback in a number of states.

Holcombe issued a 3-page memo Tuesday about the SBAC test, after it was brought to her attention “that some school leaders in Vermont are contemplating an ‘opt out’ of the SBAC” due to the added work and timeline involved.

Holcombe stated in the memo, “While this frustration is understandable, I want to be very clear that if we in Vermont do not maintain fidelity to federal requirements, we/you will forfeit federal funds … This includes any federal programs such as IDEA, Title I, Title II, and federal support for Child Nutrition. Most of these resources provide additional support for children in poverty or children with disabilities.”

Holcombe warned that schools or districts “which lose access to federal funding will need to either cut services to students or raise the local tax rate — both of which will have seriously negative implications for the students and communities we all serve.”

Holcombe sympathized with school leaders’ objections “to the punitive use of these tests under the No Child Left Behind Act. I share these objections,” she stated. “… Given that the ‘proficiency threshold’ on the new tests is set so high that two-thirds of our high school students will likely not score as ‘proficient,’ it is a virtual certainty that once again, all our public schools will be labeled ‘low performing,’ despite the fact that a study by the U.S. Department of Education ranked us as seventh in the world in math and science.

“This is also despite the fact that our students know more, on average, than children in their parents’ generation, judging by scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress,” Holcombe went on. “As one legislator recently told me after reviewing a sample SBAC test online, ‘I am really glad I am not in school today, because I don’t think I would do very well.’”

Holcombe expressed concern “about the impact on our children of repeatedly focusing on the label ‘not proficient,’ rather than focusing on the growth they made during the year,” as well.

When such tests are used appropriately, they hold value, stressed Holcombe.

“Unlike previous tests, this is a computer adaptive test which adjusts the difficulty of questions in response to the answers students provide,” she stated. “This allows for more accurate information about what each child can and cannot do; this information will help teachers to better respond to their students’ needs,” she said.

“Without tests, we would not know, for example, that one of our highest priorities as a state needs to be improving the learning of our boys who are growing up in poverty. We would not know that while the performance of our most affluent students outstrips the nation and is improving every year, we have foundered in our efforts to improve the learning of students with disabilities.”

Holcombe called on educators across the state to “help the public understand what the SBAC test does and does not measure. Most importantly, we need to push back with Vermont’s voice, and explain the appropriate and inappropriate inferences to be drawn from student scores on standardized tests, as well as our firm conviction that the purpose of our schools is not to educate our students to do well on tests, but to educate them to thrive in life.”

Ken Page, executive director of the Vermont Principals’ Association, weighed in on the SBAC debate Thursday, as well, saying, “Clearly, we support the Secretary of Education’s position that local school leaders need to administer the SBAC tests.”

“I was in Burlington several years ago when then Commissioner (Armando) Vilaseca arranged a meeting with several of us and representatives from the CCSSO [Council of Chief State School Officers] to learn about the Common Core and SBAC,” said Page. “I was also there and supported it when the State Board of Education committed us to participate in the Smarter Balanced Consortium. I knew at the time that national assessments were but one piece to get an accurate picture of how kids and schools were doing.

“We committed our kids and staffs then. So, now that we hear the tests will be hard and that it may in fact raise the bar for expectations, is certainly not the time to shy away from commitments we have made,” said Page. “Instead, we need to embrace the test for what it is — merely one measure of student progress toward meeting the Common Core state standards.”

Page said of the concern over the test, “Opting out, all by itself would send a confusing message to our students and their parents.”

Page concluded, “The Vermont Principals’ Association supports the test administration as well as a vigorous conversation about what role standardized tests play in education today.”

In response to some parental concerns that students will be forced to take the test, Remick, spokeswoman for the Vermont Agency of Education, noted that if a parent refuses to allow their student to take the test, that student would count as a zero, because of federal requirements, so it would impact that school’s performance.

Darren Allen, spokesman for the Vermont National Education Association, on Thursday said, “We agree with Secretary Holcombe that standardized testing in our public schools needs to stop being used as a way to punish schools. We also understand the frustration of parents who are sick and tired of the ever-increasing weeks dedicated to high-stakes testing that rob our schools of countless hours of actual teaching.”

“Vermont-NEA’s Board of Directors next month is slated to discuss parental opt-outs from high-stakes standardized testing, but we believe that the number of tests needs to be decreased so that students can spend more time learning and teachers more time teaching,” said Allen. “Standardized tests, like all tests, work best when they are used to improve teaching and learning, not to determine winners and losers.”

Amy Ash Nixon

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  • Pete Novick

    “Darren Allen, spokesman for the Vermont National Education Association, on Thursday said, “We agree with Secretary Holcombe that standardized testing in our public schools needs to stop being used as a way to punish schools. We also understand the frustration of parents who are sick and tired of the ever-increasing weeks dedicated to high-stakes testing that rob our schools of countless hours of actual teaching.””

    This comment cannot stand unchallenged.

    Here’s a link to the 2013 NECAP Released Items for 11th grade math. It contains a sample test of 23 questions. Go ahead and take the test yourself. It should only take you 15 minutes or less.

    No time to take the whole test? Here are three of the test questions, and the SBAC questions will be similar, though the test is to be administered to 10th graders rather than 11th graders. (Per the NECAP/SBAC instructions, no calculators are permitted.)


    1. Allen’s water bill contains the following information:
    He used 1600 cubic feet of water. The total cost for the water he used is $34.80. Which price is closest to the cost per gallon of water that Allen used? {1 cubic foot of water = 7.48 gallons of water}

    A. $0.0029
    B. $0.0218
    C. $0.1627
    D. $0.290


    2. Square WXYZ is plotted on a coordinate grid. Vertex X is located at (6, 8). The midpoint of the diagonals of WXYZ is located at (3, 5). Which coordinate pair represents the location of another vertex of square WXYZ?

    A. (0, 2)
    B. (3, 2)
    C. (6, 1)
    D. (8, 0)


    3. Andrew uses this expression to compute his total earnings, in dollars, each week, where h represents the number of hours he worked and s represents the amount, in dollars, of his sales.

    8h + 0.03S

    Last week, Andrew worked 35 hours and his sales were $5100. What were Andrew’s total earnings, in dollars, last week?


    How did you do?

    In Vermont in 2013, 6 out of 10 students taking the 11th grade NECAP test did not meet the minimum proficiency standard, meaning many students could not answer questions like these correctly.

    Mathematics is a language, like English or Chinese. (Well, maybe more like Chinese that English!) Here’s Professor John Geanakoplos teaching financial theory at Yale. He starts using the chalk board at 39:15.

    It is less of a leap than you may at first think to get from high school algebra and calculus to this course.

    So, you say, as a successful adult, holding down a good full time job, active in your church and community, an engaging parent and cheerful friend, “I don’t know how to solve those NECAP math problems above, and I made it. Why does my child have to know how to solve those equations?”

    As a parent and/or as a school board member, if you are thinking of opting out of SBAC, keep in mind growing companies offering good paying careers (not jobs) may be opting out of Vermont.


  • Howard Ires

    You can bet that the same people who advocate so strongly for all these expensive, time consuming, pointless tests (no doubt purchased from politically connected vendors) – these same fine folks send THEIR children to private schools where there are NO testing requirements, and often use our tax dollars to do so.

  • Howard Ires

    Secretary Holcomb says:

    “Without tests, we would not know, for example, that one of our highest priorities as a state needs to be improving the learning of our boys who are growing up in poverty.”

    Really? We need expensive, time consuming tests to know that we need to “improve learning” for those growing up in poverty?

    The problem with these tests are that they can be completely wrong, the children have no incentive to perform on them, and then based on the faulty data they generate very bad decisions can be made down the road.

  • The argument that we must support Common Core testing because we need federal dollars seems disingenuous. Consider how much changing to and preparing for all the Common Core curriculum and testing has cost school districts. Consider what participation in that other federal boondoggle –NCLB– has cost Vermont. Obeying federal requirements, including the mountains of paperwork, costs us millions more than we receive.

    Now, as curriculum becomes test prep, and kindergartners give up fingerpaints and blocks to become college and career ready, the emotional cost for teachers and students has no pricetag.

  • Santina Huskey

    Instead of investing millions of dollars into Common Core which is unproven and involves more standardized tests follow Finland’s example. They are Number #1.

    Maybe Vermont could be “First in the Nation” to implement an educational policy that is Proven to achieve an excellent educational Outcome.

    Take the money your investing into common core and provide free college tuition to all our students . That would improve opportunity for all the children in Vermont.

    What a unique concept. Implementing Policies based on proven data based outcomes, that reeks of common sense.

    Never mind , let’s just invest millions every year into implementing common core in Vermont and see what happens.

  • Rich Lachapelle

    As we only occasionally consider the taxpayer’s end of the education equation, these tests are really the only feedback and accountability we have as to the efficacy for the millions we spend on our bloated beast of an education system. I as a taxpayer want to know that there is useful information being dispensed along with all the propaganda and social indoctrination. Math, proper grammar, a solid science foundation and some useful shop classes provide invaluable life skills for being a contributing member of society. Paper mache and poetry are in the fun and games category and should be pursued on one’s leisure time. The advocates for ending standardized testing have been a major contributing factor in the ongoing dumbing down of Ummerica.

    • Will Adams

      You’re assuming these standardized tests actually provide meaningful data. Such is not always the case.

    • rich steckler


      That is so incredibly lazy of you. If you are sincere about how your tax dollars are being used in your local school go observe there. Go volunteer there. Sign up to substitute there. Put down the poison pen and actually go spend some time in a school. A standardized test given in a single day or at most a few days is a stupid way to assess the education the children are receiving in your school or any other school. You mention the importance of useful shop classes in your post. I couldn’t agree more, but how are those skills being addressed in a mandated, expensive standardized test?

      • Rich Lachapelle

        If we want to know how effectively our tax dollars are being used to fund public services we look to metrics such as crime statistics, highway accident reports, pollution levels and health records. For our very expensive education system in Vermont, I as a taxpayer want some standard measures to be able to observe trends and compare our yoots to those in other parts of the US and the developed world. Reading these posts and seeing the difficulty people seem to have using to/too, there/their/they’re etc makes me think that our society could use some accountability in the area of public education.

  • Santina Huskey

    Finland best practices would not be a reach for Vermont. Look into it online.

    1. Preschool for all
    2. All Kids, Same classrooms Inclusive.
    3. Accountability and Inspection over to teachers and principles
    4. Control over policies shifted to town councils
    5.Strong Connections to the children due to small classroom size
    6. Environmental Science Class takes advantage of School’s proximity to the forest
    7. One Standardized test in High School
    8. Free College or Vocational School for all Students.
    9. The ideal in Finland is “We prepare children how to learn, not to take a test.”
    Vermont is a perfect fit for this .
    10. No to Little Homework
    11. Less time in classrooms
    12. Teachers given weekly time to work on their curriculum.
    13. 75 minute recess but children are encouraged to do creative learning by activities like find pinecones and count 10’s or measures a stick.

    We already have small local schools with teachers that “know” the children.

    We have the best outdoor lab in our forests

    We practice inclusiveness in the classrooms

    Local towns and teachers are in place to implement policies and procedures that would work for their school

    Secretary Holcombe states that the Common Core assessment test will label most of our children non proficient and that test results should not be what we judge their progress on.

    Why not take what we have in place and utilize the Finland approach to education.

    The administration wants Preschool for each child in Vermont .

    Common Core implementation can be stopped and millions that would be spent on new tests , books, and teaching seminars could be spent on giving each Vermont child free college.

    Return local control and creativity to the schools that “know” their students.

    Get rid of standardized testing and the costs and time associated with it, it does not work.

    Vermont likes to be the first in the nation, Why not lead the way in education reform that really works?

  • Santina Huskey

    We have many of these practices in place from local schools with small class sizes to teachers that “know” their students.

    Administration wants preschool for all

    Common core costs millions to implement.

    Align Vermont with Finland’s standards.

    Be first in the nation that has education reform that is proven to work .

    Savings by eliminating endless Standardized tests that do not work and Scrapping Common Core could pay for every Vermont student to receive free college tuition or vocational training.

    Do the research. Look up Finland’s educational model.

    Why are we implementing Common Core when it’s costs are huge, It’s outcome unknown, and we know almost all our students will be labeled as Non Proficient?

  • Will Adams

    It’s time for education leaders to actually lead.

    Rather than toeing the federal line on standardized testing and the CCSS, why don’t our education “leaders” push back and do what they know is right for educating children? THAT would be refreshing.

  • Santina Huskey

    I prefer to spend my money on what’s proven to work. Better outcomes, Less money spent per student. Free Universal Pre-K and College or Vocational School.

    That’s money spent currently on tests that show we rate in the middle of countries on our students skills.

    The only people benefitting from testing based learning is the companies that produce the tests.

    Cost of the Common Core test is 3 times the standard test.

    Finland implemented education reform that worked. Why not follow form?

  • Ed Letourneau

    The problem with all of the test questions is they do not focus on real-life problems. The water bill question is an example. The issue of focus should not be the bill, but rater what is going on when you are using almost 400 gallons of water per day? Or maybe the meter defective, or the guy reading it flunked out!

  • It comes down to the feds metaphorical equivalent of dangling a carrot in front of your nose. As long as Vermont, and every other state as we are not alone in this department is dependent on the feds for a handout we are at their mercy.

    IIRC that is why Vermont was the last state in the nation to move the drinking age to 21. The feds threatened to take away highway funds.

  • Kathy Nelson

    The Common Core approach to education is unacceptable. Parents should always question the perverse motives of anything created and pushed by someone like Bill Gates. Here is a recent article on the issue:

    Congress and Obama administration battle over Common Core and other contentious education issues

    I have witnessed firsthand the emotional agony of parents as they watch their children being twisted into hating school because of common core lunacy. VT is always last when it comes to doing the right thing. Before we hit bottom lets help our children by repealing common core and replacing teachers who worry more about their paychecks then the kids who need teaching.

  • Tom Cecere

    An interesting comment thread. We should simultaneously refuse all federal money, change our standards to reflect those of a homogeneous socialized small country, cut back the “bloated” education lobby and simply assert our state rights to refuse testing. Sigh.

    Everyone here should probably read the Common Core standards as they relate to literature, because it’s striking how little the comments have to do with the actual article. I can imagine the early riser conservative commenters’ heads exploding if Secretary Holcombe had allowed schools to opt out and then later find out their taxes will go up by the share of federal money lost (10-25% in most districts). What was she supposed to do, just stand by and let people make a grave mistake?

    It is reasonable for the government to recommend assessments that are independent of the school personnel to reassure us that we’re teaching the right things. It should be only one factor in judging the quality of a school, as Sec. Holcombe points out. Our hypercompetitive educational atmosphere seizes upon “numbers” because we’re in love with “rankings”…so test scores are always blown out off proportion. That does not negate the need to test. The fact that some misguided politicians want to use these tests as the be-all and end-all should result in the removal of the foolish politicians, not the removal of the test.

  • Jamie Carter

    IMO there should be a competency test given to all prospective graduating seniors, if you pass you get your diploma, if fail you repeat 12th grade until you pass or quit.

    • Yikes! Imagine what that would do to education costs in this state!

    • Will Adams

      It’s coming. Yet *another* high stakes test designed to determine a child’s “proficiency” in one fell swoop. A horrid idea.

  • Santina Huskey

    Why dismiss Finland’s academic success based on it’s small size and composition? Is Vermont Too big of a state to take away lessons from education reforms that work?

    Not all of a states educational federal funding is tied to No Child Left Behind, Common Core and Standardized testing as far as I know unless things have changed. I thought their were base funds for Special Ed, Poverty, Child Nutrition and then “rewards” of funds to those who implement the administrations approved education mandates.

    How much would we lose in Federal funding from opting out of common core versus cost to implement it? Did anyone do the math on this?

    Most families do not advocate no testing, less testing certainly. Common Core implementation and testing with proficiency levels that are not achievable is the problem. The No to common Core testing movement I believe is the refusal to take the tests associated with the common core standards.

    Vermont in the past applied for a waiver on No child left behind standards then withdrew it. Shumlin said teaching to a test is not good because you sacrifice creativity. Vermont withdrew the application when it found the Waiver came with even more restrictions, issues and requirements.

    Is Vermont’s new endorsement of teaching to a test due to their Budget deficit and desperation to get all federal funds available ? What happened to Saying no to standardized tests because it stifles creativity?

    Are we willing to have all Vermont schools labeled as Not meeting standards Failing schools with Not proficient students. Telling a child who receives a label of not meeting standards that its just one measure we view you by won’t lift their self esteem or soften the blow of failing by these new standards.

    Should we blindly implement these new standards, impose more tests, rake in our federal dollars, hold back our students, Tell our children their not failures by all standards just some, judge our teachers skills by how well our children test and call for the resignation of those who are in failing schools…… Oh wait that will be likely near all of them.

    What’s the end purpose of all this because from our countries past experience with standardized testing it hasn’t fixed our educational system or improved our students national standing one bit.

  • Howard Ires

    “The business of assessing students through high school has grown 57% in just the past three years, to $2.5 billion, according to the Software & Information Industry Association.”

  • Santina Huskey

    My daughters new lingo is test talk.

    I did this on that test but didn’t do well on that test. I didn’t get to finish that test and I don’t know if they’ll let me finish it. I hope I do better on the next test. I’m so happy I Got such a good score on the reading test. On and On it goes because she takes a lot of tests.

    If she scores well she’s happy, If not she gets down on herself despite my assuring her everyone learns in their own way at their own pace.

    Learning is supposed to be tailored to the needs of the students and inspire a life long love of learning. Its supposed to be joyful .

    Maybe it would be if we lived in Finland.

  • Ed McFarren

    “We/you will forfeit federal funds. ” Who is the “we” in this equation? Does that mean that this department is funded through students of Vermont taking some federally mandated test?

  • Santina Huskey

    In order to get the federal funds for title I, II etc. there are a lot of jumping thru hoops to qualify. States can forego the funds or jump thru the hoops to get them. States can’t really afford to forego the federal funds.

    The Below link gives one for Title I. You can go thru the entire site to get an idea of how the States are granted funds. It’s an eye opener.

    No Child Left Behind is currently being updated with a large difference between the democrats and Republicans in how they want to revise it. Republicans want little Mandatory Fed mandates to get the money and basically want to give the states the money and let them utilize it as they see fit. Democrats want it tied to implementing common core and standards, Testing, and Sanctions if schools don’t meet AYP annual yearly progress.

    Obama’s new plan also encourages school consolidations into Pre-school thru 12 and I believe is offering additional grants to do so.

    He believes that there are more services and better outcomes with consolidated schools. Whether that makes sense for Vermont with the distance and winter roads for busing I don’t believe is being taken into account.

    What happens at this point and if they can craft a compromise bill will effect Vermont and our schools and what degree of freedom they have educating the students.

    Vermont can’t forego the funds so what they do is tied to lots of rules.

  • Santina Huskey

    The majority of Vermont Schools have failed in making AYP Annual Yearly Progress for 2012, 13 and I believe 2014.

    Posted on your schools website should be a publication listing whether your school made their AYP benchmark and what your child is qualified for if they didn’t.

    Each year its tiered . Third year of not meeting AYP a school has to offer a student a transfer to a school that does meet AYP . They also have to offer tutoring in which they use some of their Title one funds to pay for it. This may be just for lower income students or from what I’m reading may be for all. Look into it.

    With the implementation of Common Core the assessments will be much harder. As in New York many more students will fail to make AYP in the schools.

    It’s a vicious cycle of adhere to what the No child left behind believes is the way to do things to get their grants and if you fail to meet AYP your penalized and must again improve as they see fit, test more, offer more plans for improvement and on and on it goes.

    Obviously it’s not working in Vermont as more and more schools do not make AYP.

  • Santina Huskey

    States educational funding is between a rock and a hard place.

    Apply for a waiver and you must implement common core or similar unreachable standards. Also you must incorporate students scores into teacher evaluations.

    No waiver and you must meet AYP Annual Yearly Progress or be deemed a failing school. Mandatory amounts of funding and Measures that are federally mandated are then in place. There is no flexibility.

    The majority of schools thru the U.S. are not passing these high marks. Yet Federal money and grants that schools desperately need are tied to rules, regulations and mandates that are increasing control every year.

    I believe the opt out common core movement spreading thru the states is just parents deciding for themselves enough is enough. Their not saying don’t test their saying no to a curriculum that is going to label more children as failing due to increasing the bar children must jump over to be proficient.

    If they cannot achieve AYP now how will they achieve it with Common Core .

    How will our H.S. Students be allowed to graduate if their scores are tied to being Proficient by common core standards?

    Will we just keep lowering the Passable Score like some states have until students can guess their way out of H.S.

    We’ll get the federal money and meet their requirements to receive it but will we graduate well rounded students that are proficient . Likely not. We’ll graduate Students that are proficient because we’ve dumbed down the pass test scores so they’ll be able to graduate.

    Is this what we really want for Vermont?

    If not make your voices heard as they debate the no child left behind law before it’s to late.

  • Santina Huskey

    Very Proud of Vermont’s choice to not count the results of the SBAC for students and schools until studies prove it’s effectiveness.
    Being the first State to voice the need for re-evaluation of the mandated over testing was also a bold move.
    I hope Vermont continues on it’s path to fostering an education that is not just college /career ready but is true to a students whole being.
    Thank you for making this weeks testing a relaxed one. Now the SBAC test simply provides one more tool to form a complete picture of the wonderful student and daughter she truly is.

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