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Vermont turns to new vendor for more equitable school assessments

A photo of a row of laptops with the hands of young people and paper packets along the keyboards.
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The Agency of Education has selected a new statewide assessment vendor. Cognia will develop and implement new statewide assessments for English language arts, math and science beginning in the spring of 2023.

Standardized testing in various forms has been a staple in U.S. classrooms for more than 100 years. Supporters of these tests say they provide a consistent measure of learning across classrooms and schools.

But historically, standardized tests are not considered to be equitable. In an effort to improve diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI), Vermont schools are switching to a new statewide testing vendor — Cognia — and Secretary of Education Dan French says Cognia’s commitment to DEI “aligns with Vermont’s values.” French says the new tests will be more accessible and easier for students, families and educators to navigate.

The state plans to adopt these new standardized tests over the course of this school year.

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Vermont Public’s Mitch Wertlieb spoke with Vermont's Deputy Secretary of Education Heather Bouchey about the new assessments. Their conversation below has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Mitch Wertlieb: First, what can students, teachers, and families expect from these new standardized tests, what's different about them, what's new?

Heather Bouchey: The format will be a little bit different. So the actual presentation, or the actual tool or platform is changing, but the information that will be shared is not going to change. And I think that's what's really key. And so in a lot of ways, it won't look all that different to students, to instructors, it still has the same core responsibility, which is to provide a good assessment.

What were the flaws, though, if any, with the previous test, I mean, there had to be a reason to make the change to this new vendor.

We were really very excited about a couple of things with Cognia. They have done a lot of work, comparatively, to some other assessment paradigms on really ensuring, thinking about our most vulnerable students, our most historically marginalized students are represented in both the testing content, but also in ways that we can actually test them. And that was a really important piece for us.

And then second of all, we really liked the focus in Cognia on what are called benchmark assessments. And these are more for instructors to use. And this is very useful for helping teachers really understand how individual students are doing. And so it's more in real time.

And again, back to your original question, I think selecting Cognia was more about running through the review process. We were just really struck by these unique aspects of Cognia. And we're really excited about what they could offer. So it was less about we don't like the former assessment provider and more that we saw some really cool and unique benefits for this new assessment vendor.

"What we really want to do is make sure that our assessments really are valid for all students so that we really reduce some of the known inequities in terms of content on standardized tests, or in terms of being able to access the standardized test."
Vermont's Deputy Secretary of Education Heather Bouchey

Give me an idea of what kind of preparation students will need before taking these tests. I mean, will they be devoting several hours over the course of a few days before they do this kind of testing? What is the approach going to be there?

We're very sensitive to the fact that we don't really want to be in a situation where we have teachers "teaching to the test." They're well aligned to the curriculum that students are already learning. And so there isn't anything particularly unique. This is content that should actually be part of the actual instruction going on throughout the year. But with any new tool format, even if, for instance, this were third grade students, who are who are going to be just starting Cognia, they would learn about, like, what does this tool look like on the computer? And here's how you click on the buttons to answer questions.

In terms of the staff and instructors and educators that will be deploying the assessment, they have to learn about the different features of the assessment platform. They have to get up to speed on how long they're allotted to take the assessment, how many students, those kinds of things. And a lot of it is also like how they're going to actually schedule.

What about once the tests are taken, will there be changes to the way the testing data is evaluated, assessed?

What is changing is the actual test that we're using, but all of the federal requirements, all of the aspects of our state report card that we're obligated to post publicly —all of that remains the same.

Is there an argument to be made for abandoning statewide assessments altogether for perhaps a more individualized approach to student learning and comprehension? Or is that just not realistic? And if not, why?

I don't believe the solution is to abandon all standardized testing. I think that standardized testing is one tool and should be deployed as one tool to give a depiction of how students are doing in one's local area and one state in the nation. You know, we believe that throwing out statewide assessment, in general in a standardized way would be kind of like throwing the baby out with the bathwater. Instead, what we really want to do is make sure that our assessments really are valid for all students so that we really reduce some of the known inequities in terms of content on standardized tests, or in terms of being able to access the standardized test.

Have questions, comments or tips? Send us a message or tweet your thoughts to @mwertlieb.

A graduate of NYU with a Master's Degree in journalism, Mitch has more than 20 years experience in radio news. He got his start as news director at NYU's college station, and moved on to a news director (and part-time DJ position) for commercial radio station WMVY on Martha's Vineyard. But public radio was where Mitch wanted to be and he eventually moved on to Boston where he worked for six years in a number of different capacities at member station WBUR...as a Senior Producer, Editor, and fill-in co-host of the nationally distributed Here and Now. Mitch has been a guest host of the national NPR sports program "Only A Game". He's also worked as an editor and producer for international news coverage with Monitor Radio in Boston.
Karen is Vermont Public's Managing Producer of Morning News. She manages the morning news content on broadcast and digital platforms, and works with Morning Edition host Mitch Wertlieb to bring listeners the latest news and information, along with relevant interviews. Karen has a long history with public radio, beginning in the early 2000's with the launch of the weekly classical music program, Sunday Bach. Karen's undergraduate degree is in Broadcast Journalism, and she has worked for public radio in Vermont and St. Louis, MO, in areas of production, programming, traffic, operations and news. She produces the Vermont Public Choral Hour, with host Linda Radtke. Karen recently worked with co-producer Betty Smith on a national collaboration with StoryCorps One Small Step, connecting Vermonters one conversation at a time.
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