Testing compact may affect education standards

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(Host) Vermont will join a compact with New Hampshire and Rhode Island to develop new tests to meet the requirements of the No Child Left Behind law. New math and reading tests must be in place by 2005 and federally approved science tests by 2007. State officials say the regional collaboration will save time and money.

VPR’s Nina Keck reports.

(Keck) Bud Meyers is deputy commissioner for standards and assessment for the Vermont Department of Education. He says each state will receive $3 million from the federal government to help pay for new tests.

That’s the good news. The bad news is that there are only a handful of reputable testing companies that can handle such a large project. Small states, like Vermont will have a hard time negotiating for new tests when up against states like Texas and California. To even the playing field, Meyers says Vermont, New Hampshire and Rhode Island are joining forces to form an unusual tri-state, testing compact.

(Meyers) “Vermont, when all the assessments for grades 3-8 are in place, will test around 42,000 to 48,000 students, depending on the year. With the compact, we’ll be testing around a quarter of a million students. And when you’re dealing with test companies and production schedules that have to do with printing and scoring of tests, you get a lot more leverage with your contract with a larger number of students.”

(Keck) Currently, under Vermont state law, standardized math and reading tests are given in the 4th, 8th and 10th grades. A science test was recently added for kids in 5th, 9th and 11th grades. As states go, that’s a fair amount of testing.

But under the federal No Child Left Behind law, additional math and reading tests must be given every year from 3rd through 8th grade and once during high school. Three science tests will be required before a student graduates. But states can’t just go to a “test store” and buy these new exams off the rack because tests have to be tailored to each state.

(Harris) “In Vermont, we have standards, but the standards aren’t specific to each grade level. They’re in clusters, like there are standards for kindergarten through 4th grade, 5th through 8th, and 9th through 12th. You can’t really develop tests like that.”

(Keck) Doug Harris is executive director of the Vermont Institutes, a nonprofit organization in Montpelier that provides teacher training, curriculum workshops and test development. He says to make new tests the state had to first specify what students in each grade need to know.

They studied curriculums from every supervisory union in Vermont. They looked at national and international studies and they held workshops all over the state with educators, professional consultants and members of the public. The process, says Harris, has taken months.

(Harris) “You have to realize that this is the foundation – it’s like building a house. If the expectations aren’t right, there’s no way you can build a good test. So you’ve got to get that right to start with.”

(Keck) By joining the tri-state compact, Vermont will combine its educational requirements with those of New Hampshire and Rhode Island. Then one set of tests will be designed for all three states.

Bill Mathis, head of the Rutland Northeast Supervisory Union, says the financial savings of the compact are obvious. But he worries that by joining with Rhode Island and New Hampshire, Vermont’s grade level equivalents – the ones the state worked so hard to define – will be diluted.

(Mathis) “And of course the bad side of going in with other states is that you don’t get them to the Vermont standards either; you get them into the tri-state compromise. And that’s a problem.”

(Keck) Educators from all three states have been meeting over the past several months to create a common set of standards. Pat Halloran, director of the Vermont Reads Institute, has been part of that process. She says working with the other states has actually been a plus.

(Halloran) “It helped us look at some of the work they’ve done and then reflect on the work that we’ve done and say, ‘Oh gee, we missed this piece, we need this here or I like how they did it with their grade level expectations,’ and mesh the two documents to where they’re much stronger, much clearer, very explicit. And I think extremely helpful for teachers.”

(Keck) State education officials say joining the compact will save the state up to $2 million.

For Vermont Public Radio, I’m Nina Keck.

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