Cost of elementary education: How school districts in region compare
BENNINGTON -- Those who follow schools in Vermont are most likely familiar with two numbers that are often talked about: NECAP test scores and a school's cost per student. While each number on its own can say a lot about how a school is operated, its possible that comparing the two can give an even better idea of how efficiently a school district spends it money.
The idea is simple: Some school districts have much larger tax bases than others, and thus can afford to spend more money per student than others. While it is expected that schools that spend more money will have better results on standardized testing, there is by no means a linear relationship between the two statistics. Some schools are simply able to do more with less.
To come up with the statistics in this article, I used a relatively simple methodology: For each public elementary school district in Bennington County, I took the percentage of students who scored proficient or above in each of the four elementary NECAP (New England Common Assessment Program) tests. Those tests are math for grades three through eight, reading for grades three through eight, writing for grade five, and science for grade four. I then found the average between those four numbers. I then found the ratio between that average and the district's cost per full-time equivalent student (FTES) for that school year. For each district, I ran these numbers for each of the past three school years for which data is available, the most recent being 2012-2013.
For example, in the 2012-2013 school year, Bennington School District spent $9,254 per FTES. That same year, 53 percent of students who took the NECAP math exam scored proficient or above, 58 percent for reading, 42 percent for writing, and 31 percent for science. When the four test scores are averaged, you get a final percentage of 46. When you divide $9,254 by 46, you get $201.17, which is how much the district spent, per pupil, for each of those percentage points. While this number doesn't represent any fungible expense, its a simple way to compare different schools spending versus their test results. Looking at a three year average also helps to remove some of the statistical noise.
All of the data used is publicly available on the Vermont Agency of Education's website, education.vermont.gov. The figure for cost per full-time equivalent student was drawn from the "Allowable Tuition Calculation" document for each of the school years. The schools looked at were all the public elementary schools in the Battenkill Valley Supervisory Union, the Bennington-Rutland Supervisory Union, and the Southwest Vermont Supervisory Union. While some of these schools are located in Rutland County, whenever "county" averages are referenced below, they refer to the averages of all these schools.
The school that came out as the most efficient was the Shaftsbury School District, which operates Shaftsbury Elementary School, with a score of $157.65, well below the Vermont state average of $184.90 (this number is based only on the 2010-2011 and 2011-2012 school years, as the state averages for the 2012-2013 NECAPS have not yet been released), and the county average of $193.34. Consistently having a cost per FTES of near or below $10,000 helped improve Shaftsbury's ranking: Their average cost per FTES over the three years looked at was $9,611, while the state average was $10,930 and the average for the county was $11,329. Their test scores were consistently in the middle of the pack, but were very good compared to how much they spend, averaging 55.92 percent above proficient in the three years, compared to the county average of 59.56 and the state average of 59.13.
The district that scored the worst was the Currier Memorial Unified School District, of Danby, which operates the Currier Memorial School and is part of the Bennington-Rutland Supervisory Union. The district's test scores were well below average, at a three-year average of 44.58 percent above proficient, while the cost per pupil was only slightly below average, at $10,278 over the three years.
From most efficient to least efficient, the 11 districts looked at were, 1. Shaftsbury at an average of $157.65; 2. Dorset at $169.15; 3. Mettawee Community School at $178.89; 4. Sunderland at $181.39; 5. Bennington at $182.27; 6. Woodford at $198.94; 7. North Bennington at 200.50; 8. Arlington at $200.66; 9. Manchester at $207.82; 10. Pownal at $217.03; and 11. Currier at $232.41.
These numbers are by no means a definitive guide, but only represent only a quick measurement of how a district's student results compare to their spending. Woodford, for example, would have scored much better except for an apparent outlier in the 2012-2013 school year, which saw their cost per FTES increase to $15,221 from a previous two-year average of $10,997. Woodford and Sunderland in particular, due to their small student populations, are more likely to see strong variation between years: At a larger school, two students moving out of district would not change the cost per FTES that much, but in a smaller district, those losses would be much more strongly reflected in the data.
It is also arguable that the NECAP exam is not the best measure of a student's performance in school. The state of Vermont, responding to concerns with the test, will be transitioning to the Smarter Balanced Assessment System in coming years. However, for the time being, there is no better way to compare school districts, especially using data that is publicly available. Variations in average performance compared to the somewhat arbitrary "proficient" levels could also cause some variations in the data. For the same reasons, comparing Bennington County districts to districts from other states is also very difficult, as each state uses their own assessments systems, that are not truly comparable with the NECAP results.
Derek Carson can be reached for comment at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @DerekCarsonBB
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