Under the federal act known as No Child Left Behind, essentially every Vermont school is now labeled as "low-performing," and the state's education secretary, Rebecca Holcombe, is disputing those failing grades.
"It's a broken policy," she told New England Cable News, describing NCLB. "We're stuck with a law that, honestly, when it was passed, we knew it was not achievable."
Under the rules, Holcombe said that in 2014, schools are branded as "low-performing" if they have even one student who scores as not proficient in math or reading on the New England Common Assessment Program or NECAP standardized tests.
The goal of No Child Left Behind was to improve access to quality education for students from lower-income families by providing federal funds to school districts where more families are in poverty. As part of that, school districts had to become more accountable, by proving all their students are proficient at skills set for their grade level by the year 2014. Standardized test data was to be used to prove that proficiency.
However, that narrow definition of educational achievement is not working in Vermont, Holcombe said. She explained all the Vermont schools that took the NECAP have now been called "low performing." Holcombe said individual students may have performed poorly on the tests due to language barriers, trouble at home, inattention due to hunger, or a host of reasons.
The federal expectations were always unrealistic, Holcombe told NECN.
"It's not the emergency all those labels would make you think," she said, describing the state of education in public schools across Vermont.
Last month, Holcombe wrote a letter to parents and caregivers telling them her agency does not agree with the federal policy or agree that the schools are low-performing.
Holcombe pointed to types of learning that standardized tests do not measure, like creativity, technology, civics, and scientific inquiry. She suggested the ineffectiveness of testing in those areas is an indication the federal rules do not align with Vermont values.
More than 40 states in this country have waivers that mean they're not subject to the definitions of No Child Left Behind, including the "low performing" label. Vermont does not have a waiver. It didn't want one, Holcombe said, because it did not want to agree to scrutinize teachers' job performance based on standardized test scores.
"To label all our schools as failing based on NECAP scores is pretty bogus," observed John Bacon, the superintendent of schools in Barre, Vermont.
Bacon said other exams, including the National Assessment of Educational Progress, or NAEP, have ranked Vermont students as really good at math and science. Bacon added that the state has a high school graduation rate most others would envy.
"When you look at the results state by state, Vermont does very well," he said.
Holcombe said she does believe Vermont, of course, always needs to strive to improve its approaches to education, especially for children in poverty. But she insisted a federal policy that gives all schools an "F" is not helping anyone.
"It's a distraction from state priorities," Holcombe said of the "low performing" label.
Vermont's State Board of Education also recently released a statement on the use of standardized tests, which called for changes to No Child Left Behind.