The end of another school year marks a time to reflect on the past year, and to review our accomplishments and challenges. Vermont continues to receive national attention for the strength of our K-12 education system. We have the second highest graduation rate in the country. We continue to be one of the top five states in the country on the National Assessment of Education Progress (NAEP). We are also the only state in the union without a school identified by the U.S. Department of Education as a “drop-out factory.” Our schools provide a safe and positive learning environment for the vast majority of our students.
As a state, however, only half of our students continue their education beyond high school. This statistic needs to improve if we are truly going to meet the needs of our students and our state. The State Board of Education’s five-year strategic plan strives to improve this statistic by working to provide students with multiple pathways to graduation, more relevant and applied learning, increasing exposure to careers while in middle and high school, greater opportunities to have real-life learning experiences outside of the classroom, internships in the community to practice applied learning, and expanding our online learning opportunities for all students.
Our state assessment, the New England Common Assessment Program (NECAP), is part of state law and is tied to the federal No Child Left Behind Act (NCLBA). We were required to increase our Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP) targets this year to meet the NCLBA goal of 100% of all students meeting standards by 2014. As a result of this increase, we had to identify more schools than ever. Most of the schools have been making progress, but not enough to stay above the targets. A flaw of NCLBA is that an arbitrary and unreachable target was set, which means that in the next four years most schools in the country will fall short. This is an unrealistic way of measuring how our students are progressing. Local teacher assessment and consistent student growth are not factored into the accountability system; thus only one assessment measure is used to determine the success or failure of our students, our schools, and our state.
Vermont is working to change its accountability system, to be more comprehensive, so that a standardized assessment is only one of several ways to determine how students are progressing. Unfortunately, this concept is being held up by the lack of progress being made in Congress on the reauthorization of NCLBA. The law is expected to expire in 2014 and unless Congress addresses NCLBA it will continue to be the law of the land.
In Vermont we have schools that are engaging in incredible work; identifying and supporting students who need additional academic support, addressing the achievement gap between students who live in poverty and those who do not, and expanding our ability to work with the private sector to increase opportunities for all students. For example, we have a very popular and expanding Farm-to-School program that incorporates students raising food in their schools as part of their academic curriculum. Our state values the local food movement and schools have joined a mutually beneficial partnership. These types of programs make learning interdisciplinary and require that schools work with community groups to achieve these benefits. Additionally, much of the food grown becomes part of the food programs, which provides our students with healthy and wholesome lunches, encourages greater participation in our nutrition programs, and helps students see the connection between what they eat to where and how it is grown. I visit schools across our state and I am exhilarated to see gardens in schools large and small, urban and rural. Whether it is at Sharon Elementary School where each class has its own garden plot; to Derby Elementary School where students work with local farmers to learn about the food chain; to Montpelier High School with its own green house and a huge garden plot which is part of every students’ biology class; to The Sustainability Academy at Barnes School in Burlington; our young children are learning to be stewards of our state and to see the interconnection of what they learn in school and what they eat to career opportunities in the areas of agriculture and science.
Many high schools currently have graduation requirements that entail an in-depth report or study on a topic that the student has chosen and the school has approved, an oral presentation made to a panel of faculty and community members, and/or a visual display of the project. Whether it is called Project Graduation or Capstone, these projects incorporate real-life learning as a part of the graduation requirements. These learning experiences cannot be measured by a single test.
Vermont is working to provide a system that will measure student learning by using a combination of standardized tests (shared across dozens of states), classroom/teacher assessments, and student demonstrations such as Capstone projects or student portfolios. These measures will be designed around a growth model that will set individual targets for each student, rather than setting arbitrary targets for all students, to reach annually. Student achievement will be based on what is learned in school, not time spent in school.
The goal of any educational system should be to ensure that all students master skills and gain the appropriate knowledge in order to become successful adults. All students start school with different needs and backgrounds, and it is essential for schools to be able to provide them with the appropriate time and skills to become successful. Our current federal law does not accommodate this benefit of additional time, or comprehensive assessment, to be able to fully provide the public and our schools with accurate measures of student progress.
As we conclude another school year, let’s not be discouraged with the challenges that still remain. Instead, let’s embrace them as challenges that will provide the momentum to create the change we all strive for as we continue to work to keep Vermont schools at the top.
Enjoy your summer.
Armando Vilaseca is Vermont’s Commissioner of Education.