The subject was the center of more than hour long discussion at the last Manchester School Board meeting on April 9 when the board reviewed the results of the most tests and also discussed the past several years.
The NECAP tests were created as part of the No Child Left Behind Act and have been administered to Vermont students since 2005. The test measures students academic knowledge and skills relative to their grade expectations and student scores are reported at four levels - Proficient with Distinction, Proficient, Partially Proficient and Substantially Below Proficient. The NECAPs test reading and math in grades 3-8 and grade 11, writing in grades 5, 8 and 11 and science in grades 4, 8 and 11. While the reading, math and writing tests are administered each year in October, the science test is not given until May.
With performance on the tests declining over the past several years, Superintendent of the Bennington-Rutland Supervisory Union Daniel French said that professional development, curriculum development, and the evaluation of teachers - which has already been implemented - would be the keys to improving tests scores.
One of the areas French said they may focus more on is writing since sections of the test require students to write extended answers - particulary in the science section.
"We think writing is a critical aspect to improving literacy as well as an emphasis on a common core of the nonfiction and writing," said French. "Writing I would say honestly I would say that is the weakness across the board and that's something we really got to focus on."
Since boys have not performed as well as girls on the tests, MEMS principal Sarah Merrill said some of the places they might start to attempt to raise their test scores are to get them interested in informational - or nonficition - text and building their vocabulary in the primary grades. Additionally, Merrill said MEMS students are doing a lot of reading and writing in the primary grades.
While those may be places to start, motivation - especially in grades six through eight where Merrill said they struggle the most - remains an issue. However, Merrill said if they could make the things more meaningful to the boys so that they could document things in multiple ways - for example building something or creating something as opposed to just writing an essay - it could be beneficial.
The motivation factor is a big problem facing school officials in regards to the tests though.
"There's no reason for a high school kid to work hard on the test because it doesn't affect their transcript, it has no impact on their college initiatives," said French. "So, likewise when we get up to the middle grades we have to find a way to keep students motivated and engaged to increase their performance. So, the issue of rigor goes hand in hand with the issue of relevance."
The question was also asked at the meeting what the attitude of the Kindergarten through third grade teachers was toward the learning process. "We have a teacher evaluation system. We're working on that. Teachers are getting lots of professional development. I would say our teachers are jazzed about teaching students and highly confident," said Merrill. "I think as a whole we have a highly committed [group of] teachers, professionals in the building."
While MEMS School Board member Brian Vogel did not feel the declining tests scores were a reflection on the teachers, he was perplexed over the results.
"I have kids in the school, so I met with four different teachers and overall my experience here, the teachers are great," said Vogel. "[Is it] that the curriculum isn't appropriate? Is it that our expectations of the kids are too low? Where are we falling short that our scores have been declining? There's something that's not working and I can't put my finger on it."