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State Tries To Balance Vermont Students' Needs With New Federal Education Law

Howard Weiss-Tisman
Miles Plitt, 11, rides a bike at Putney Central School. The school invested in mountain bikes and built a pumptrack. The principal says high stakes tests should not drive decision making in Vermont schools.

Education officials are seeking public input as the state puts together a new accountability system for Vermont public schools.

Late last year, Congress finally scrapped No Child Left Behind.

Critics say the unpopular federal education law relied too much on standardized test scores to identify "failing" schools.

Before the U.S. Department of Education moves ahead with its new law, its asking the states how they want to measure success in the public schools.

And Vermont is trying to figure out how to gauge student progress and hold schools accountable, without putting so much focus on high-stakes testing.

At Putney Central School in southeastern Vermont, principal Herve Pelletier says the school tries not to put too much pressure on the students or teachers when it's testing time.

"We really try to emphasize outdoor education," he says. "We like to get the kids outside. We have a very active farm-to-school project. We have an awesome school forest. And we want to be able to have teachers have the option, without the constant reminders about how important testing is."

"We really try to emphasize outdoor education ... we want to be able to have teachers have the option, without the constant reminders about how important testing is." — Herve Pelletier, Putney Central School principal

Putney Central is a small pre-K through eighth grade school in Windham County, and Pelletier says if you want to know how a school is doing you have to look at much more than test scores.

He says No Child Left Behind put so much emphasis on the standardized test results, and the federal law took everyone's focus away from what schools are really trying to do with their students.

"There's a lot going on in schools that doesn't get measured," he says. "Shouldn't our goals be producing kids who are functionally literate citizens in a democracy?"

Money, of course, is a big part of the federal government's carrot-and stick approach. And the goal of the federal law is to make sure funding gets to the kids who need it most.

So how do you make sure that happens without relying only on test scores?

That's what Vermont Deputy Secretary of Education Amy Fowler is trying to figure out.

"We're completely committed to the goal, the issue is the way in which we get to that end result," says Fowler. "We don't always agree on the path to get there."

The new federal education law is called Every Student Succeeds Act, or ESSA.

When Washington first raised the idea that states would have a say in the new law people like Fowler imagined a Vermont-sized accountability system that turned the focus away from testing.

"We really were excited about the idea of having multiple different measures carry some weight in school accountability," she says.

But when ESSA was adopted, the law was clear that standardized tests would continue to be a cornerstone of its accountability metric.

The feds are asking states to come up with individual plans to augment the testing, and state education officials are trying to find out just how far they can move the needle in the other direction.

Vermont would like to hold fewer tests, say, every other year.

The feds said "no."

Fowler says Vermont doesn't like gathering the tests scores, and all the other indicators, into a single rating system that ranks schools one above the next.

"What we're trying to avoid is saying, 'Oh, they'll never agree to that, let's not submit it.' Let's put out our best thinking and reasoning on why it's good for us and see if they push back." — Amy Fowler, Vermont Deputy Secretary of Education

But that's the way the U.S. Department of Education wants to grade schools.

And mostly, the state isn't interested in identifying the lowest performing schools, and calling them out in public.

Washington says if you want our money, then you'll report on accountability.

So Fowler and her team are trying to walk a tightrope between satisfying the federal testing requirements, and coming up with a plan that truly reflects Vermont's goals and expectations of its students.

And she says she'll push it as far as she can.

"What we're trying to avoid is saying, 'Oh, they'll never agree to that, let's not submit it,'" Fowler says. "When maybe they would have agreed to it. Let's put out our best thinking and reasoning on why it's good for us and see if they push back."

Credit Haley Dover / AOE
Patrick Halladay speaks at a summit held at Jay Peak on Vermont's plan to re-write school accountability rules in reaction to the new federal education law, Every Child Succeeds Act.

State education officials are now gathering public input on the new federal law, and how Vermont should respond to it.

Last month, more than 150 people showed up for a two-day summit at Jay Peak and the agency says it has received more than 1,000 comments on the state's plan.

"We have an opportunity to come up with other educational measures," says Patrick Halladay, a project manager for the Vermont Agency of Education, who is leading the effort to help educators and the public understand the new law. "So now we're talking about what those educational measures might be."

Halladay says those measures could include flexible pathways to graduation, school climate, service learning and other educational advancements that don't show up on a standardized test.

Ultimately, whatever plan the state proposes must be accepted by U.S. Department of Education.

The state hopes to have a draft plan in place by the end of this year, and then forward its proposal on to Washington, D.C. in the spring.

Halladay says the state wants the new federal accountability plan in place before the start of the 2017 school year.

Howard Weiss-Tisman is Vermont Public’s southern Vermont reporter, but sometimes the story takes him to other parts of the state.
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