SBAC 2015-22.jpg

This bar chart from the Bennington-Rutland Supervisory Union shows performance by students in its six schools on the state SBAC math and science tests since the 2014-15 school year. The last test before the COVID pandemic was administered in 2018-19.  

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MANCHESTER — New curriculum for math and reading, an initiative to train teachers on literacy instruction and renewed commitment to individual instruction to help students catch up on skills and concepts are all part of the Bennington-Rutland Supervisory Union’s education plan in the 2022-23 school year.

Those goals were outlined in a report on testing data offered by Superintendent Randi Lowe and Skylar LaBombard, the supervisory union’s director of teaching and learning, during the BRSU Board of Directors meeting Tuesday night.

The BRSU, which operates the five elementary and middle schools of the Taconic & Green Regional School District and Mettawee Community School, had set a goal of returning to its pre-pandemic scores on the state’s standardized tests — 55 percent proficient or better in English language arts and 43 percent or better proficient in math. Those results were from the 2018-19 school year — the last full year before the COVID-19 pandemic struck in March 2020.

The results? In English language arts, 47 percent of students in grades 3 through 8 tested at proficient or better — 1 percentage point lower than in 2020-21. In math, 35 percent tested at proficient or better — five points higher than in 2020-21.

For students from economically disadvantaged backgrounds, 30 percent tested as proficient or better in English language arts and 24 percent in math, according to the report.

However, the BRSU’s performance was slightly higher than the state average. Across Vermont, 44 percent of students tested proficient or better in English language arts.

With that in mind, the BRSU intends to use its own data, from its “i-Ready” computer-based learning assessment tool, to set goals for the new school year. That decision was made as the state is still pursuing a contract with a new standardized test vendor for this year, leaving open the question whether past years’ data can be fairly compared to this year’s test results.

The goal? “The percentage of students across all demographic groups achieving grade-level as measured by i-Ready (Spring ‘22 to Spring ‘23) Reading and Math (K-8) will increase by at least 5 percent by the end of the ‘22 to ‘23 school year,” the presentation to the board said.

The data from last year said 52 percent of students were achieving grade-level understanding of skills and concepts in math, and 58 percent in reading. The goal is to increase those percentages to 57 percent at grade level for math and 63 percent at grade level for reading.

Part of the reason for last year’s test performance, LaBombard and Lowe told the board, is that over the past two years of COVID, chronic absenteeism has grown significantly. In 2021-22, 8 percent of all BRSU students were out 30 days or more. That’s an increase from 4.8 percent in 2020-21, the first full school year of the pandemic. In 2018-19, 0.9 percent of students in the BRSU’s six schools missed 30 days or more.

COVID drove a lot of those absences, Lowe said in an interview Tuesday, and though the district is no longer insisting on testing to return to class, nurses are still evaluating students for COVID symptoms.

Standardized testing as a means of charting school performance, while federally mandated for grades 3 through 8, remains a topic of debate. Critics say the tests are inherently biased and a poor measure of the full picture of a school’s performance. Supporters say the tests offer a fair comparison between districts and are valuable for diagnosing areas that need improvement.

PERSONALIZED PLANS

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For the past two years, the BRSU’s operating districts have used i-Learn, a computer-driven testing tool that assesses students three times per year. The data from those assessments is then used to develop personalized learning plans that help students improve in areas that need more attention.

The trouble, Lowe told the board, is that teacher buy-in on using the tool to help students catch up was intermittent in its first year — 2020-21 — and inconsistent last year. The data report to the BRSU board showed that only one grade level — second — was getting near the 30 to 39 minutes of personalized instruction per week recommended by i-Ready last year.

That will be a priority this year, Lowe said, because the data shows it works. According to the BRSU report, it saw a 12 percent improvement in math and 26 percent improvement in English language arts across the supervisory union among students who were able to take advantage of the personalized instruction.

“Last year, we said, ‘We really want to you attend to this.’ And we did better [than in 2020-21],” Lowe said. “What we had last year was data that helped us to see students and classes that got more minutes saw greater growth.”

The math and English language arts curriculum — such as textbooks and supporting materials — were replaced with federal COVID relief funds made directly available to schools (also known as ESSER funds). “Teachers had been very dissatisfied with the math curriculum, and we weren’t seeing results. The same goes with our ELA curriculum.”

The supervisory union is also embarking on a two-year program in which teachers from all six schools are being trained in literacy instruction.

RISING ABSENTEEISM

The absenteeism data from last year indicates two-thirds of the students who missed more than 30 days are from economically disadvantaged households.

“On top of those kids already being disadvantaged, they’re missing more school. That is concerning to me,” Lowe said.

While there are clear truancy guidelines from the state — such as when letters should be sent informing families that attendance is expected — Lowe is contemplating a more personal touch to reverse the trend.

“I thought to myself ... what if a student wasn’t there, we reach out and say, ‘We missed you today. How are you doing? Is everything OK?’ And we make those personal connections and let our students know that we miss them, that we wish they are here. That goes back to relationships,” Lowe said.

That meshes with equity training underway this week in the supervisory union, designed to help educators learn how to better talk to and listen to kids, and better understand whether students feel welcomed and safe in school.

Reach Greg Sukiennik at gsukiennik@manchesterjournal.com or at 802-447-7567, ext. 119.


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