MONTPELIER >> While Vermont students on average perform well on English and math tests, newly released results from the Smarter Balance test shows that students don't have the same opportunities across the state, according to school level results presented at a news conference on Wednesday.
"The key message today," said Education Secretary Rebecca Holcombe, "Vermont really does fairly well on both assessments. That said, there is evidence in our data of inequality in opportunity for students across schools and across the state."
The data presented by the Agency of Education on Wednesday shows large differences in student performance across schools — even those that share the same demographics. It also revealed that low-income and special education students continue to be underserved.
The Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium online test was given to all publicly funded students in grades 3-8 and 11 for the second time last spring. The test, which is aligned to the Common Core standards, is given to students on a computer and it adapts to the taker's abilities.
The state sets an "intentionally ambitious" cut score, meaning it is more difficult for students to reach proficiency. Some states have been known to game the federal accountability system by setting a low benchmark to make it look like more students are proficient.
Statewide more than half of students at all grade levels scored proficient or higher in English language arts but in math students didn't do as well. As students get older they perform worse in math.
On the 2016 Smarter Balanced math test:
56 percent of third-graders scored proficient and above.
50 percent of fourth-graders scored proficient and above.
43 percent of fifth-graders scored proficient and above.
41 percent of sixth-graders scored proficient and above.
46 percent of seventh-graders scored proficient and above.
44 percent of eighth-graders scored proficient and above.
38 percent of 11th-graders scored proficient and above.
SBAC results on the English test are as follows:
54 percent of third- and fourth-graders scored proficient and above.
58 percent of fifth-graders scored proficient and above.
56 percent of sixth-graders scored proficient and above.
58 percent of seventh-graders scored proficient and above.
59 percent of eighth-graders scored proficient and above.
57 percent of 11th-graders scored proficient and above.
AOE focused on the scores for fourth-grade students on the federal meals program, also known as the free and reduced lunch program, the federal indicator for poverty in the schools, to illustrate how they were lagging behind their peers.
In fourth-grade English only 37 percent of low-income students were proficient as opposed to 66 percent of more affluent students.
Holcombe said that the low-income student population is growing and "if we don't address this, what does it say about the future of Vermont?"
Only 32 percent of low-income fourth-grade students were proficient, while 63 percent of students that are not classified as low income met the standard.
In general, the higher a school's rate of poverty, the lower test perform levels are. Still, there is variation between schools with the same poverty levels. AOE illustrated this with a scatterplot graphic. (Statewide nearly 40 percent of students are low-income.)
"These are all schools with similar demographics but a huge variation in student performance," said Holcombe. She said that this data shows that what teachers do really makes a difference.
The special education category showed starker differences in abilities in fourth-grade math where only 14 percent of students met proficiency as opposed to 56 percent of the non-special education students. This data comes from just 15 schools out of 215 because they were the only schools with enough students to report scores separately due to federal and state privacy laws.
The AOE said that they will address the inequalities across the state as they continue the education quality reviews that connect educators in the field with peers and the agency as part of the accountability reports required by Washington.
They also plan to identify best practices in high performing schools with the various student populations to share with similar schools. As for math, they are going to beef up instruction with federal professional development grants and some new curriculum policies at career and technical education centers.