Across the state, students in all grades who took standardized tests last spring had an easier time showing they were proficient in English than in math. In many Vermont high schools, students aren’t ready for college coursework in math, and some aren’t ready for college English either.
Vermont is part of a group of 15 states that use the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium test that measures students’ performance against the Common Core standards in English and math in grades three through eight and 11. The standards are expectations for what a student should know and be able to do at each grade level. Students who reach a certain score are deemed proficient. For 11th-graders, that means they are ready for college level coursework in the subject.
VTDigger analyzed schools’ average scores to see where students are performing at the level set for proficiency. We found that younger students performed better than older students in math. Results were mixed between private and public schools in both English and math, and they were unrelated to the school’s price tag in high school.
This analysis is based only on the results for schools that had enough students taking the SBAC to report scores without violating federal privacy laws. The data came from the Agency of Education.
More than half of Vermont’s third-graders, who have been studying with the Common Core standards since they started school, did meet both the English and math goals for proficiency.
The majority of students in half of all elementary and middle schools in Vermont were proficient in English. That wasn’t the case for 11th-graders, though. Just under a quarter of the high schools were hitting the proficiency mark for English.
Students performed much worse in math as they moved up in grades. While fourth-graders approached math proficiency, every other grade found it to be an elusive target. Of those reporting results, only seven high schools had scores indicating the average student was ready for college-level math.
Thirty-six percent of all students attending Vermont colleges and universities have to take remedial courses to catch up, according to the Center for American Progress.
Vermont doesn’t collect statewide information on how many of its graduates have to take remedial courses in college. But at the Community College of Vermont, 50 percent of Vermont students take at least one remedial course, according to Tricia Coats, director of government affairs for the Vermont State Colleges.
Vermont sets the bar for proficiency at an appropriate level, according to Achieve Inc., a nonprofit that works with states to ensure standards and tests are rigorous and aligned. The organization reached that conclusion after comparing state results with the National Assessment of Educational Progress results.
Almost all of the states participating in the SBAC assessment, including Vermont, use the same standard for proficiency in order to give a high school diploma the same value wherever a student lives.
Public versus private schools
Previously, VTDigger reported which public schools performed best and worst on the SBACs by comparing them to the statewide average scores in both subjects. This analysis is focused on which schools’ average score is at the proficient level in each subject area.
The analysis includes the seven private schools that have enough publicly tuitioned students participating in the SBACs to report their scores. They are the four traditional academies — Burr and Burton Academy, The Lyndon Institute, St. Johnsbury Academy and Thetford Academy — as well as The Sharon Academy, Long Trail School and The Village School of North Bennington, an elementary school.
In grades three and four, more than half of Vermont’s students were proficient in math. The largest gulf between proficiency and the statewide average scores on the math SBACs appears in grades four through eight and high school. In the schools where students didn’t reach proficiency in math in these grades, most performed at achievement level two, out of four. That means they have only some of the knowledge and skills they need to move up a grade. In high school it means they may need support to be ready for college coursework. Students scoring at levels three and four are considered proficient.
Unlike many of their public school counterparts, the third-grade class at North Bennington was not able to collectively score proficient. However, in grades four and six students surpassed many of their peers by scoring proficient. (The Agency of Education did not publish scores for grade five because so few students took the exam in that grade.)
Some of the students at other private schools struggled with math too. The seventh-grade classes at The Sharon Academy and Thetford Academy failed to meet the proficiency checkmark. Thetford’s eighth-grade class also fell short of proficient. Like many of their public school counterparts, these students performed, on average, at a level that meant they had some knowledge and skills but still needed to learn more to perform grade-level tasks.
Reaching proficiency in high school math was a tough task for Vermont students. Considering the average scores for each school, only seven schools scored at least 2628 — the cutoff for proficiency — on the test. Two were private schools, and the other five were public:
- Sharon Academy students led the way with an average score of 2706.
- Long Trail students followed, scoring 2647 on average.
- Students at South Burlington High School scored 2646.
- Mount Mansfield Union High School students also scored 2646.
- Stowe High School has the next highest average score, with 2644.
- Middlebury High School students scored 2640.
- Essex High School students averaged 2632.
All seven of these high schools’ students also scored proficient in English (the cutoff score was 2583), and they beat the statewide average (2597), which was a higher bar than proficiency.
Lower-income students, as a group, tend to score lower on standardized tests. Vermont’s high-performing high schools had relatively few low-income students except for South Burlington (where 45 percent of students are on the federal free and reduced-price lunch program, or FRL, an indicator of poverty) and Middlebury High (with 30 percent on FRL).
Sixteen percent of The Sharon Academy’s students were low-income; Stowe High School had 13 percent; and Mount Mansfield Union High had 12 percent. Long Trail School has not participated in the federal meals program.
None of the other private high schools reporting scores was able to meet proficiency in math. At Lyndon Institute, students scored on average at the lowest achievement level, meaning they will not be ready for college without “substantial support.”
Students at Burr and Burton Academy fell far short of math proficiency. Scores at Burr and Burton, St. Johnsbury Academy and Thetford Academy were within the second level of achievement.
Of the public high schools reporting SBAC scores, eight scored so low that the students won’t be ready for college math without “substantial support.” Those schools were: Otter Valley Union High School, Randolph High School, Springfield High School, Whitcomb Junior/Senior High School, Blue Mountain High School, Mount Abraham Union High School, Black River High School and Winooski High School.
All but two of these low-performing schools had more low-income students than the statewide average. Randolph and Mount Abraham were the exceptions, where 37 percent and 33 percent of the students, respectively, took part in the federal meals program. The statewide FRL average last year was 38 percent.
On the flip side 33 public high schools had students scoring proficient or above in English. Of these schools, six had average student scores at the proficient level but did not reach the statewide average for 11th grade English, which was a higher bar than proficiency.
Of the schools that reported SBAC scores, the two top-performing schools in grade 11 English were the same private schools that outdid public schools in math, followed by more than 30 public schools meeting and exceeding proficiency: The Sharon Academy (2704) and Long Trail School (2694), followed by South Burlington (2675), Stowe (2669) and Mount Mansfield (2667). These high-performing schools do not have a lot of low-income students. Only South Burlington has a higher percent of students on the federal meals program (45 percent) than the statewide average.
Long Trail School has said it didn’t participate in the program because it didn’t have a cafeteria, but is building one and plans to apply for federal meals funding.
Long Trail’s educational program is built on the international baccalaureate curriculum, which is available in public schools in other states like Advanced Placement courses. The curriculum is focused on critical thinking and intercultural awareness. Numerous studies have shown that students who study the IB curriculum have higher SAT/ACT scores, and their grades in college are better than their peers in the general student population.
Spending versus results
VTDigger also looked at what kind of impact spending might have on test results. We compared the public high schools with the most and least expensive allowable tuition in Vermont.
The most expensive schools that had enough students reporting results are: Proctor Junior/Senior High School, Springfield High School, Cabot School, Winooski High School and Middlebury High School.
High school students at Middlebury, Cabot and Proctor handily surpassed both the proficiency threshold and the statewide average in English. But students at Springfield and Winooski fell far short of both. All have a similar percentage of low-income students, and Winooski also has a significant number of students for whom English is not their first language.
As for math, Middlebury students were the only ones to meet proficiency. Students at the rest of the schools are not ready for college level math.
The public schools that had the lowest tuition costs were Mount Mansfield Union High School in Jericho, Williamstown Middle/High School, Bellows Free Academy in Fairfax, Milton High School and Poultney High School.
Students at each of these high schools, except BFA-Fairfax, were proficient in English, but only the students at Mount Mansfield nailed the math test and are ready for college level work in both subjects. A Mount Mansfield education, at a cost of $13,469, could be the best deal in Vermont when it comes to test scores.
VTDigger used “allowable tuition” for fiscal year 2017 — also known as net cost per pupil — instead of the equalized per-pupil spending number to determine the most and least expensive high schools because it comes closest to what is spent on a student, according to Brad James, education finance manager at the Agency of Education.
“Allowable tuition is calculated by dividing actual allowable expenditures by the full-time equivalency of students,” according to the agency. The equalized per-pupil amount is normed and weighted and often includes “phantom students” that are added to the rolls to cushion schools when enrollment declines.
While school districts can set tuition wherever they like, the decision is influenced by the fact that if they set it too high it is harder to attract tuition students and if they set it too low they may end up subsidizing some students.
The high schools with the highest allowable tuition are not included in this graphic analysis. Rochester High School costs $20,000 a year and does not have a high enough school population to publish SBAC results.
Hanover High School in New Hampshire, which some Vermont students attend, uses the SAT instead of the SBAC in grade 11.
Tuition costs (for day students) for the private high schools in this story are:
- Burr and Burton Academy: $16,250 (13 percent FRL)
- Lyndon Institute: $16,825 (29 percent FRL)
- St. Johnsbury Academy: $16,315 (22 percent FRL)
- Thetford Academy: $17,998 (16 percent FRL)
- The Sharon Academy: $14,773 (16 percent FRL)
- Long Trail School: $17,986 (no students on FRL)