District holds steady in difficult SBAC year

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In a testing year that tripped up students across the state, Colchester pupils notched a generally impressive performance on the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium, ranking above the state average in five of the seven age groups measured.

Students in grades three through eight and 11 took the SBAC, a standardized test that replaced the New England Common Assessment Program three years ago. The test measures adherence to the federal Common Core standards in English language arts and mathematics.

In grade 11, 78 and 55 percent of Colchester students were proficient in English language arts and mathematics, respectively, compared to 59 and 37 percent statewide.

The numbers placed Colchester second in the county and fourth in the state, all while spending far less per pupil than in nearby districts, according to a dataset provided by the Vermont Agency of Education.

Data and curriculum director Gwen Carmolli said the district was thrilled with students’ overall performance, but acknowledged there was still work to be done in the middle grades.

Indeed, students in grades 7 and 8 fell below state averages in both subject areas, with just 42 and 38 percent of seventh-graders demonstrating proficiency in English and math, respectively, compared to 55 and 44 percent averages in Vermont.

Though the test is still relatively new, Carmolli said available data suggests Colchester students consistently dip in those middle grades and that the trend is not unique to the current cohorts.

“I find it incredibly valuable to see how our students are doing over time,” Carmolli said. “It gives us information.”

Hoping to reverse the pattern, the district is continuing its participation in the Tarrant Institute for Innovative Education through the University of Vermont, a program that offers professional development training and supports integrated technology in middle school classrooms.

Though SBAC numbers provided by the state have a central focus on proficiency benchmarks, Carmolli said the more detailed results the district receives pinpoint specific strengths and weaknesses among the entire student body.

Colchester students generally did well in areas like reading and problem solving, but struggled with short answer questions and general computation, according to Carmolli.

The analysis also shows how students scored within their proficiency block with a little more precision, assigning a number between one and four. Though both three and four designations register above the proficiency line, Carmolli said she’s especially proud to report several grades saw significant growth in the “four” category this year.

Scores for grades three, four, seven and eight were lower in both English and math than last year’s showing, while students in grades five and 11 posted higher numbers than the 2015-16 classes. Sixth-graders increased proficiency in English but fell in math, according to AOE numbers.

State averages in 2016-17 were lower across the board, save for a few point increases in grade 11 English.

Nearly every kid in the district takes the assessment, including those on individualized education plans and English language learners.

Offered on the computer, the SBAC is adaptive and can scale students’ questions up to two grades above and below their actual level. The test was administered over a week and a half this year, Carmolli said.

Data from those receiving free and reduced lunch, used as a measure of low income, is especially valuable as it allows educators to gauge the “equity gap,” Carmolli said.

“Really our goals are around opportunity for every student,” Carmolli said. “So, we’re not just focusing on it for [SBAC]; we’re focusing on it for everything.”

Sixty-two percent of grade 11 students not receiving FRL were proficient in math, for example, compared to 27 percent that do receive free and reduced meals.

The same pattern is seen throughout the Colchester dataset, including in grade 3, where 44 percent of students receiving FRL were proficient in English, compared to 71 percent without.

Pointing to a whiteboard hanging in her office, Carmolli said the district tries to absorb the test results while keeping its core values in mind. Phrases like equity and rigor topped Carmolli’s list.

“Our teachers are working incredibly hard. Our students are working incredibly hard. We take the test seriously, but we also recognize it’s a snapshot,” Carmolli said. “The learning that is happening is going on in the classroom.”