Goal #2: Academic Rigor | Goal #4: Better Teachers

How can parents, taxpayers, and school administrators know how well schools and students are faring? The most commonly used assessment tool is a test.Vermont now requires that all publicly-funded students be tested using the New Standards Reference Exams (NSRE). This exam is not a norm-referenced test. It tests how well students have mastered Vermont’s standards. Unlike norm-referenced tests (which contain well defined questions of proven validity and provide scores obtained by comparing students and schools to a norm group), the NSRE does not allow students to compare their level of academic achievement to those of other students across the country. This is a serious drawback given the fact that Vermonters will have to compete with these students in the future for college slots and jobs. Vermont’s other assessment tool, portfolios, lacks rigorous objectivity in scoring techniques. The state will begin administering the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) tests. However, NAEP will allow comparisons state to state but not school to school

Norm-referenced tests, on the other hand, are inexpensive to use and many schools have been relying on them for years, tracking cohorts over time to pinpoint trends that can help improve schools.

The four major norm-referenced standardized tests on the market are Terra Nova (McGraw Hill), California Achievement Test (McGraw Hill), Iowa Test of Basic Skills (Riverside), and the Stanford Achievement Test (Harcourt-Brace).

For parents and schools, these test are handy alarm bells to alert them to trouble. For example, if third-grade students fare poorly on the reading portion of one of these tests, help should be provided quickly to ensure they do not fall behind. Every year beyond these early grades, it gets harder to catch up, say educational experts.

If an entire grade level is scoring poorly in reading at the third grade level, it raises an alarm about the teaching techniques being used in that particular school.

Critics of norm-referenced standardized tests say that these tests cannot measure higher level skills but rather only measure isolated “fact recall.” Not so, say some educational experts. Because the four tests are constructed to work with a variety of school curricula, they are designed to rely heavily on reading comprehension and other higher level cognitive skills.

Tests and assessments can only tell the public a limited amount of information about students and schools. In most cases, testing is best at raising alarms rather than at revealing nuanced judgments.

Recognizing the limitations of testing, Vermonters for Better Education recommends that the NSRE and portfolios be made optional and that schools simply be required to administer one of the national norm-referenced tests on the market. We also recommend that the Department of Education be required to collect the data on these tests from each school.

- Vermont’s 1998 assessments in writing for grades four and eight had to be recalculated because of poor training materials being given to the original scorers of the tests.
- Harcourt-Education Measurement, the company that writes and grades our tests, agreed to give $628,000 in refunds and discounts over the next two years to make up for a series of mistakes in the tests.
Despite the fact that Vermont’s standards have been given low marks (see Goal #2), student mastery of these vague standards is low in some areas — According to the Vermont Comprehensive Assessment System, in 1999: - Only 38 percent of Vermont’s 4th grade students “achieved the standard” or achieved the standard with honors” in “mathematical concepts”
- While 67 percent of 4th graders “achieved the standard” or achieved the standard with honors” in mathematical skills, only 35 percent did so in “mathematical problem solving.”
- Only 34 percent of Vermont’s 6th graders “achieved the standard” or “achieved the standard with honors” in elementary science.
- Only 30 percent of Vermont’s eighth graders “achieved the standard” or “achieved the standard with honors” in “Mathematical concepts.”
- While 67 percent of 8th graders achieved the standard or achieved it with honors in “mathematical skills,” only 42 percent did so in “mathematical problem solving.”
- Only 23 percent of Vermont’s 4th graders were “proficient” in math
- Only 27 percent of Vermont’s 8th graders were “proficient” in math
(complete listing of 1996 scores here: http://www.act60.org/naepscores.htm) |

Goal #2: Academic Rigor | Goal #4: Better Teachers

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