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Schooling the community in new education benchmarks

Town school board, administration present testing under new Common Core standards

BRATTLEBORO—As the state transfers to new education standards and testing, the Brattleboro Town School Board and administration held their second forum on Nov. 19 to prepare the community.

A small audience attended the evening forum at Academy School as presenters tried to dispel a sense that the Common Core is another federally mandated standardized test that would pigeonhole young students.

Instead, presenters said, Common Core is a set of goals and standards. Most of the assessments performed in Brattleboro schools are designed by their kids’ teachers as part of daily learning activities.

The Vermont State Board of Education adopted the new education standards, called the Common Core State Standards, in 2010. Full implementation of the standards occurs this school year.

Common Core in mathematics and English language arts and literacy aims to better prepare students for college and future careers by creating a unified list of education standards in the United States.

According to the Common Core State Standards Initiative website, the new standards will give educators and committees tools to ensure all students receive the same level of education and skills. The standards also match international education benchmarks.

Information on the initiative’s website stresses that Common Core is not a curriculum. Local schools and teachers design their own lessons and assessment materials.

Vermont will still use some standardized assessments and tests. According to Curriculum Coordinator Lyle Holiday, a test called the Smarter Balanced Assessment (SBAS) System will replace the New England Common Assessment Program (NECAP) tests used in Vermont.

According to forum presenters such as Windham Southeast Supervisory Union Superintendent Ron Stahley, students spend approximately 1 percent of their time on state or federal mandated tests.

To hammer home the concept of teacher-designed assessments, presenters showed the audience examples, including comparing a kindergartener’s self-portrait drawing from the start of the school year with one drawn at the end of the school year.

Holiday handed out examples of literacy tests for kindergarteners and fourth-graders that teachers might use at the end of a lesson to assess what students learned.

Kindergarteners, she explained, may practice identifying letters and their sounds. Fourth-graders will be asked to read a story and answer questions to reveal comprehension and skill in information analysis.

The SBAS tests — which students take online — are designed to go deeper into test information. For example, math questions don’t provide only multiple choice answers. Students must also explain in writing how they arrived at their answer. This tests communication and comprehension, presenters said.

Stahley said that adopting the SBAS should help Vermont schools slough off the “failing schools” title often endowed under the NECAP tests.

“I know it’s a morale-killer for teachers,” he said.

The “failing schools” designation has served as a political argument by people looking to privatize education, he said. Most Vermont schools don’t meet the NECAP standards.

“It’s a widget mentality,” Stahley said of the political arguments.

Vermont decided long ago to reject “high-stakes testing,” which uses standardized test scores to move students from one grade year to the next. Instead, the state uses multiple forms of assessment to review a student’s gains or struggles.

Along with in-classroom assessments, Stahley said that the town schools survey students on social aspects such as feeling safe and understanding what they’re learning — and why.

One audience member noted that the presenters’ information appeared carefully laid out to inform the audience on the foregone conclusion that is Common Core, rather than to encourage conversation.

Music teacher Andrew Davis — one of the few teachers at the forum — asked whether the Common Core integrates different subjects, like art with social studies, or focuses only on math and literacy.

Presenters said that the core representes standards. Teachers decide how they meet those standards.

Audience member Spoon Agave asked if Brattleboro schools measured how students’ education benefited their community.

Agave suggested that in his experience, students aren’t sufficiently engaged in civic activities and the town has low voter turnout and relatively high unemployment.

He asked whether there should be a connection between the education we give kids and how they enrich their community.

Stahley responded, “I don’t know that it’s a direct connection.”

Schools prepare kids to become good citizens, but “community” is broad and can include where kids go to college, where they move, or where they work, Stahley added.

Literacy coach Brian Buettner told the audience that a primary goal underlying the town school’s efforts was closing the achievement gap for students living in poverty.

Over the past seven years, town’s schools have decreased students’ illiteracy rate from one in four students to one in 20. Or, from 25 percent to 5 percent.

Between 2007 and 2013, early intervention efforts have helped reduce students’ special education needs by 25 percent, Buettner said.

“It’s not magic,” Stahley stressed. “It’s using the data.”

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Originally published in The Commons issue #282 (Wednesday, November 26, 2014). This story appeared on page A6.

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