Data from the Vt. Agency of Education shows students in the Essex Westford School District met proficiency in statewide exams at a lower rate compared to the previous year.
Reflecting scores from the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium, which are administered in the spring to grades three through 8 and grade 11, the data shows only two EWSD grades — fourth and sixth — improved on last year’s math scores, while only fourth-grade English remained steady.
The rest fell, with some dipping more than 12 points.
AOE officials say while the exams are “deliberately ambitious” to help direct federal funding to the districts that need it the most, they aren’t sure what led to the statewide drop: only fourth-grade English proficiency results in Vermont remained steady.
Amy Cole, EWSD’s executive director of curriculum and instructional innovation, was pleased to see the district’s students continue to perform well overall, though expressed disappointment with Essex High School’s results: Grade 11 math and English both fell eight points.
Although every EWSD grade outpaced statewide averages, the latter numbers include some of Vermont’s most disadvantaged schools, where rates of poverty and other socioeconomic realities impose a much different educational landscape than in Essex.
A more accurate snapshot of the high school’s performance is found in comparing its results to other high schools in Chittenden County.
A comparative analysis of the top high schools based on overall education spending — Essex ranks second to Champlain Valley Union — shows the 45 percent math proficiency rate in EHS’ 11th grade ranks fifth behind Mount Mansfield (61.8), Colchester (54.5), CVU (53) and South Burlington (51.8).
Essex falls to sixth in English, with its 65 percent proficiency rate trailing South Burlington (79), Colchester (77.7), Mount Mansfield (77.5), CVU (74.3) and Milton (70).
Burlington and Winooski finished in seventh and eighth, respectively, in both subjects.
Cole said she’s not overly concerned from a program standpoint because Essex has scored comparably to these other districts in the past. She added it’s reassuring to see state trends and data like this usually leads her to ask more questions, like what factors could have affected the data’s efficacy.
“We’ve wondered about how seriously the 11th grade students have taken it,” she said, noting these students often report feeling “over assessed” at this point in their education careers.
The state will instead test ninth-graders next year, which Cole believes will provide a more “longitudinal look” at testing data.
The test is also administered at different times across districts, she said. The SBACs require a three-month window when schools can offer the exams. Essex held its test during the first week, Cole said, while other schools may have held the exams later in the year, allowing more time for instruction.
Lastly, the computer-based assessments make it hard to track if there are certain questions that tripped students up because the exams are adaptive — they offer questions from a span of four grade levels based on how well the student performs.
All that said, Cole explained the state assessments are part of a larger look at a district’s programming, allowing officials to compare the results to individual and local assessments and make decisions on professional development or teaching methods.
Some of that work has already begun, Cole said, pointing to a common algebra program that’s used by Albert D. Lawton and Essex Middle School.
“We’re looking at those opportunities where it doesn’t have to be identical but it should be equitable,” Cole said.
For EHS, Cole said she plans to meet with building leaders and compare the scores on an individual basis, looking at local assessments given during a students’ first two high school years to draw more conclusions from the data.
This year’s results offered EWSD officials the first look at commingled data between all their former districts, which will prove useful amid the heightened focus on providing equity across all 10 schools.
Essex Town scored higher English proficiency rates in third, fourth and seventh grades, while Essex Jct. students outperformed their counterparts in all other grades. Overall, the third through eighth grade average in Essex Town was only 2 percentage points higher than Essex Jct.
In math, the overall third through eighth grade average was identical, though some grades do show significant differences. For example, 65 percent of Essex Jct. sixth-graders met proficiency, while Essex Town students did so at a rate of 50 percent.
However, Cole said a three-year average of students from the two former districts is “fairly comparable” and she doesn’t see any large disparities.
Cole said EWSD shows no major achievement gaps between genders, and only recently has the district’s counts for students of color have been large enough to study.
Yet she expressed concern over the continued performance gap between students of varying family incomes. Breakdowns show students who qualify for free and reduced lunch, an indication low family income, scored well below Essex’s general population.
The difference was nearly 50 percent in some grades. Only Thomas Fleming’s fifth grade math scores, which include about 25 percent of low-income students, met proficiency at a rate higher than the general population.
Statewide, low-income students trailed behind their general population peers.
“The achievement gaps between our vulnerable youth and students with greater privilege remain, and in some cases were narrowed, but this was largely a result of score declines for more privileged groups,” Vt. education secretary Rebecca Holcombe wrote in a press release.
The SBAC breakdowns this year showed a scaled score from adjusted raw data, which schools can use to track individual students and see if they’re making a “years’ worth of growth, Cole said.
This data has “changed the conversation,” she added, because schools can now go beyond proficiency rates to see the varying rates of improvement from students that continue to struggle.