Education

Vermont students’ standardized test scores dropped during the pandemic. School officials say you shouldn’t read too much into it.

Vermont students’ standardized test scores fell during the pandemic, with decreases across all grade levels and subjects, data released this week shows.

School officials urged the public not to read too much into the annual test results, noting that the pandemic had scrambled the usual test-taking procedures and prevented many students from taking the test.

“We strongly recommend against comparing these results to previous years,” Wendy Geller, who runs the Agency of Education’s Data Management and Analysis Division, said in a press release Monday announcing the results. “The extraordinary circumstances (led) to a range of factors that make this year’s results statistically invalid when compared to prior years.”

Under federal law, Vermont schools are required to administer standardized tests, called the Smarter Balanced Assessment Program, every spring to grades three through nine.

Each student in those grades takes an English language arts test and a math test. Students in fifth, eighth and eleventh grades are also given a science test, the Vermont Science Assessment.

The tests sort students into four categories based on their results: proficient with distinction, proficient, partially proficient and substantially below proficient. Only students with scores in the first two categories are considered “proficient and above.”

School- and district-level results will be available by mid-winter, officials said. 

Tests in 2020 were canceled amid the pandemic, so the most recent data available is from tests in 2019. 

No 2021 test scores in any grade or subject increased from 2019 levels. Scores for only one test, eleventh grade science, remained effectively stable, with only a 1% drop in the number of proficient students.

Math scores saw the largest decreases, with several grade levels seeing up to double-digit decreases between 2019 and 2021 in students scoring proficient or above. 

Fifth grade students had the largest decrease, with a drop of 12 percentage points — 30% from 42% — in students classified as proficient in math.

Both before and during the pandemic, students fared better on standardized English language arts tests than on math tests. Between 2019 and 2020, English scores were more stable. Sixth graders recorded the largest decrease — down to 43% from 53% — in students who were proficient or better.

Vermont also collects data on the performance of “historically marginalized” students, a category that includes students of color, English language learners and students living in poverty or with disabilities.

Compared with their classmates, those students fared worse on tests in all subjects and grades, although their scores did not generally decrease as steeply between 2019 and 2021.

One exception was the eleventh grade science test, in which the percentage of proficient historically marginalized students ticked up to 27% in 2021 from 25% in 2019. 

But school officials said the test results provide little useful data. The number of students tested in 2021 was several hundred less than in 2019, which education officials attributed to “hybrid and remote learning practices [and] lack of participation by medically vulnerable and other students with special circumstances,” according to a Monday Agency of Education press release.

Agency of Education spokesperson Ted Fisher said in an email that test-taking rates may also have differed between districts and demographic groups. And even students that took the tests, he said, did so under extremely unusual circumstances. 

“These tests are designed to perform well when instruction is delivered under typical conditions,” Fisher said. “Last year was anything but typical.” 

Jay Nichols, the executive director of the Vermont Principals’ Association, said he had not dug into the assessment data but emphasized students’ struggles with “the social-emotional aspect” of school after a year and half of mostly remote learning.

“We were very clear in the very beginning that any test results would probably not be very statistically reliable or accurate,” he said. “I think anybody who understands anything about how these things work agrees with that.”

Correction: The drop in fifth grade students classified as proficient in math was incorrectly described in an earlier version of this story.

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Peter D'Auria

About Peter

Peter D’Auria covers education for VTDigger. Prior to moving to Vermont, he worked for The Jersey Journal, The Chilkat Valley News and Willamette Week. He is originally from Portland, Oregon.

Email: [email protected]

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