• Vt. students' scores better; gaps remain
    By CLAUDE R. MARX Vermont Press Bureau | October 19,2004
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    Students leave Rutland Intermediate School on Monday. Assessment test scores were released Monday, showing Vermont students generally improved.
    MONTPELIER Vermont students outperformed their counterparts elsewhere and generally improved their scores on assessment tests, but state officials said Monday they are concerned about gaps based on gender and income level.

    Results from the national New Standards Reference Exam, given in March, showed Vermont's fourth- and eighth-graders outperformed their counterparts both throughout the country and in New England in both math and reading.

    Most student groups showed improvements, though the rate of progress was generally greater among fourth-grade students than among eighth- and 10th-graders.

    However, students from families with incomes low enough to make them eligible for discounted or free meals continued to lag behind their more affluent classmates. Girls continued to outperform boys in most areas.

    Education Commissioner Richard Cate said he was pleased with the results. But he expressed hope that continuing problems faced by low-income students would result in greater support for early-childhood education programs that help at-risk children who may not be getting help at home.

    "The only way we will ever make any real change is to intercept them early," he said.

    Earlier this year, the Vermont Legislature failed to pass a proposal that would have increased the availability of funds for these programs.

    As for the gender gap, Cate said "maybe we haven't figured out what the boys need as well as we have for the girls."

    Among fourth-grade students, 81 percent of those tested met or exceeded standards for basic reading skills, compared with 80 percent last year. The data showed 87 percent of those students not receiving free or reduced-price breakfast or lunch met or exceeded the standards, while only 69 percent of those receiving free meals did.

    A greater improvement was evident among those students when tested for math problem-solving skills: 52 percent of fourth graders met or exceeded standards, compared with 41 percent last year.

    Among students receiving no free or reduced-priced meals, 58 percent of them met or exceeded standards, compared with 36 percent of those receiving free or subsidized meals. Among girls, 54 percent of them met or exceeded standards in the subject, compared with 48 percent of the boys.

    Among eighth-graders, 68 percent met or exceeded basic reading comprehension standards, compared with 62 percent last year. Seventy-three percent of those students met or exceeded math skill standards, compared with 67 percent last year.

    Among 10th-graders, 46 percent of them met or exceeded basic reading comprehension standards, compared with 44 percent last year. In math, 40 percent of these students met or exceeded problem-solving standards, compared with 42 percent last year. The performance gaps are serious, but administrators should look at the range of causes before deciding to solve the problem only by spending more money, said Libby Sternberg, executive director of Vermonters for Better Education, a Rutland-based advocacy group.

    "There is value for early education for some at-risk children, but using it to explain away bad test scores or to justify spending more money is not helpful," she said. "We need to figure out what we are doing that's not working."

    Angelo Dorta, president of Vermont NEA, a union made up of teachers and other school employees, said the test scores show the need for more money for early childhood education programs, as well as greater efforts by school districts to help underperforming students.

    "These students have a better chance of getting their education off to a good start if they get the early help," he said. "Once they get to school, districts should consider assigning some of the best teachers to work with them. This would cause the systemic changes that we need to help these students."

    Last year among fourth-graders, 32 percent were receiving free or reduced meals, as were 26 percent of eighth-graders and 19 percent of 10th-graders. Overall, 21,784 students received free or reduced priced meals at 269 schools that offered those programs.

    This year, 298 schools are offering those programs and the number of participants is expected to grow by about 2,000, according to the Campaign to End Childhood Hunger, a Burlington advocacy group.

    The tests are used to measure student performance in compliance with state law and the federal education law, called No Child Left Behind.

    In most subjects, students are tested in grades 2, 4, 8 and 10 except for the science test, which is given in grades 5, 9 and 11. Grade 2 test results were released in September.

    The goal of the state and federal laws is to get all districts to 100 percent proficiency by the 2014-15 academic year.

    Contact Claude R. Marx at claude.marx@rutlandherald.com.
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