Meg Woolmington: Standardized testing in perspective

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The Vermont Agency of Education recently announced a downturn in Vermont students' performance on standardized tests. Deputy Secretary Amy Fowler could not explain the drop in SBAC (Smarter Balance Assessment Consortium) scores but acknowledged that all over the state "people were focused on issues other than assessment" and "attention has been diverted from improving learning..."

True. The single-minded push to consolidate and standardize Vermont education via Act 46 has consumed huge resources of time from local boards, school administrators, and the state agency itself. Just about everything else has been pushed off the table. Don't we wish this state effort had gone into supporting those on the front lines who can improve student experience.

At the Village School of North Bennington, we keep standardized test results in perspective. They provide only one small picture of what's happening.

Do parents depend on standardized tests to measure how children are faring? Parents have an array of vivid indicators: Their children's engagement, teacher conferences, report cards, a sense of the classroom, and more.

One teacher friend believes that "a standardized test measures how well a student takes a standardized test." Nothing more, period. Indeed, early evidence indicates that results very significantly depending on whether the test is taken on a laptop, or on a small screen tablet.

Test manufacturers are not yet answering questions about score variations based on technology.

Another factor? Test group size. The Village School of North Bennington classes vary between 12 and 22 students, and these grades may include any combination of academically-confident or academically-challenged students. Tests may tell more when we aggregate class data over several years to see a larger sample and watch the way the scores move over time.

At the Village School, we do not "teach to the test." We do recognize that helping students develop tools for living and learning may benefit them when taking a standardized test, but we maintain that testing provides a limited view of what the student and the school are doing.

Rather than testing, Head of School Tim Newbold has focused on teaching and curriculum. Last year, he and the faculty began an in-depth (and ongoing) curricular review, a process with direct impact.

In addition to developing curricular changes with the staff, Newbold added a full-time reading specialist and, where needed in primary classrooms, additional teaching assistants. The earlier we help early-stage readers, the more confident and independent the older student.

With a year of in-depth math curriculum review behind them, the Village School faculty will work periodically with a master math teacher. The goal is for all students to develop confident numeracy skills, crucial for making decisions in our data-filled world.

Programming offered with Hiland Hall Gardens and with Vermont Arts Exchange involves collaboration with the classroom teachers so big curricular topics can be developed in diverse ways and understood more meaningfully. Students can truly play with ideas.

The Village School is strengthening teacher development both from within (mentor teachers work with newer teachers) and from without. A new partnership with Teton Science Schools will offer our staff an active exchange of ideas with colleagues who, like them, seek compelling ways to integrate resources of community and landscape in their teaching. David Sobel, a nationally recognized advocate of community-based and outdoor-based education, will visit at school this winter.

The success of our schools depends on serving students, families, and school districts thoughtfully and effectively. Sometimes a school's wise use of resources or strengths focused on particular needs has a big impact. Make no mistake, standardized test results like SBAC scores are not simple shorthand for a school's success or a student's success, but reflect only a small part of ongoing work.

— Meg Woolmington is chairwoman of the Board of Trustees for the Village School of North Bennington.

The opinions expressed by columnists do not necessarily reflect the views of the Bennington Banner.



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