MONTPELIER — The Vermont Agency of Education is partnering with a North Carolina software company to measure student progress and provide better learning and career guidance for parents and students.
The announcement, made Thursday afternoon at a news conference at the National Life Building, came against the backdrop of student scores falling in reading and math, as seen most recently in the National Assessment of Education Progress (NAEP) annual report card for 2019.
“We’ve heard from many educators and school districts asking for more tools to help students with reading and math, and we know why: Nearly half of our young learners are scoring below proficient on the Smarter Balanced Assessment in grades three and four,” Secretary of Education Dan French said.
“We’ve been looking for a way to give Vermont educators increased ability to monitor the performance of students in reading and math skills and to provide targeted supports to help them improve.”
The program, called Lexile and Quantile Frameworks, was created by Durham, N.C.-based MetaMetrics and is designed to strengthen student reading and math at all grade levels. While the program costs $200,000 per year, it is being funded through a federal grant and at no cost to school districts. The software has been adopted in at least 17 other states.
One challenge in education has been that standardized tests keep changing from one format to another. Examples include the most recent iteration of the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium (SBAC), and before that, the New England Common Assessment Program (NECAP). While continual change makes charting student progress challenging, the new software will help remedy the situation by providing consistent criteria from year to year.
“What we’re trying to do is provide an external, valid tool that is used widely across the country,” French said. “So hopefully no matter what program or curriculum implementation a district is engaged in, they will be able to see measured improvements now in a more objective and external measure.”
He added that this is not about endorsing one style of teaching over another, but is about monitoring performance.
The software has robust purposes, such as guiding students’ Personalized Learning Plans (PLPs), another relatively new Vermont education policy. A PLP is a custom learning path tailored to each student’s strengths, as well as their potential career interests.
“Having a common data framework will be very useful in personalizing learning for students through our related initiative, which is flexible pathways and personal learning plans,” French said.
French said that includes resources for “finding books at certain Lexile levels, vocabulary lists, a text analyzer, and access to the Lexile career database.”
Deputy Secretary of Education Heather Bouchey, who also spoke at the event, said the software can also play a role in helping students figure out what they need to do for life after school.
“Students can better discern how much more preparation is needed before they are college and career ready, and that preparation can be specifically tailored to different pathways that each student is interested in,” she said.
Bouchey said understanding technical manuals is a skill that for many professions has gotten even more demanding than in the past, and that’s something graduates entering the workforce need to be ready for.
French also discussed what his agency is doing to figure out why student scores are dropping in math and English. He said one stand-out issue is that Vermont has three time the New England average of special education students who are suffering from “emotional disturbances.”
“The research suggests that might be because communities don’t have access to adequate mental health services,” French said.
The demands and costs of special education are substantial enough that state lawmakers were compelled to pass Act 173 in 2018, which reformed how special education expenditures are billed. It’s now a block-grant model versus the former pay-per-service model.
French added in the past there may have been over-identification of special education needs occurring in schools because it helped them get more resources.
Asked if there are more students that need special education in general, French it’s a subject education officials are studying.
“It points to the need for us to have a closer partnership with our mental health agencies,” he said. “There’s a lot of discussion in education about what the causes are, and some research points to the fact that 50 percent of what impacts a student’s performance happens outside of the school.”