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Vt. Forced To Delay Goal of Expanding Assessment System

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Vermont's pioneering assessment program, the first large-scale attempt to evaluate student performance on the basis of portfolios, has fallen short of its goal of expanding statewide this year.

The program started on a pilot basis in 144 schools in the 1990-91 school year, and state officials had planned to evaluate portfolios from every school in the state this spring.

Particularly in the case of the mathematics assessment, however, the proposed expansion has proved too ambitious for many schools. Teachers were saddled with too many other responsibilities to take time to score the portfolios, officials said.

Moreover, in several places the reforms in curriculum and instruction needed to implement the new form of assessment have not yet taken hold.

As a result, when teachers gathered in Barre, Castleton, and St. Johnsbury early this month for a three-day scoring session, only half of the 300 teachers needed to score the math portfolios took part in the process.

And several districts--including Burlington, the state's largest--declined to participate in the mathematics assessment program this year.

School officials who are not participating this year maintain that they strongly support the program, and that they expect full participation next year.

Even so, "This needed to be a pilot year for the teachers of Burlington, so they could feel competent in their own professional understanding of what goes in a portfolio,'' said Monica Nelson, Burlington's director of curriculum and staff development.

While voicing understanding for the teachers' concerns, however, Commissioner of Education Richard P. Mills defended the timetable as necessary to force change.

"If you're trying to reform schools, you need a mixture of pressure and support,'' he said. "We've provided a tremendous amount of support, through professional development.''

Yet, Mr. Mills continued, "People need to see action, results.''

"To put something three or four years into the future,'' the commissioner said, "is like never.''

Too Many Small Schools

The new assessment system, the first statewide test in Vermont's history, has attracted national attention at a time when many states and districts are developing alternatives to traditional multiple-choice tests to assess student performance.

Under the program, 4th and 8th graders are assessed each year in mathematics and writing in three ways: a uniform test, in which students respond to the same tasks at the same time; a portfolio of their classroom work; and a "best piece,'' gleaned from the portfolio, which represents what a student considers his or her own superior effort of the year.

Interest in the program during its pilot phase last year was high. Although state officials had asked only 46 schools to participate in the pilot, another 98 asked to join. The results were reported statewide.

In expanding the program statewide this year, however, state officials have had to move more slowly than they originally intended.

In February, for example, the state board of education voted to report the results at the supervisory-union level this year, rather than report each school's results, as the plan originally proposed. A supervisory union is a group of districts.

W. Ross Brewer, the director of planning and policy development for the state education department, said the decision not to report at the school level reflected the fact that analysts needed large samples of student work to produce reliable results. The state will report school-level data every two years, he said.

"Almost two-thirds of the schools don't have enough students to report at the school level reliably this year,'' he said.

'Their Plates Are Full'

The department this month was forced to modify its plan still further, Mr. Brewer noted, because only 150 teachers volunteered to score math portfolios.

The department was "hoping for 300,'' he said, "but could have lived with 225 or 250.''

Mr. Brewer conceded that the low volunteer rate was "disappointing.'' But he added that he had expected it, since Vermont teachers are also involved in reforming special education, restucturing schools, and other initiatives, including a "professional-development industry'' that has grown up in response to the assessment program.

"There is so much going on in Vermont right now,'' he observed, "teachers feel their plates are full.''

Mary Rutherford, the principal of Central Elementary School in South Burlington, said that teachers in her school did not feel they could take the time off to attend the training workshop this week.

"All classroom teachers ask themselves how long they can be away from class before it affects students,'' Ms. Rutherford said.

Commissioner Mills said the low number of volunteers would only affect the math assessment this year. In writing, teachers score their own classes' portfolios, and samples of portfolios are rescored at higher levels. The math portfolios are expected to be scored that way next year.

In addition, he said, the board's decision to report the results only at the supervisory-union level reduces the need for scorers.

"It simply means that, this year, instead of every student's [math] portfolio [being] scored by a central group,'' Mr. Mills said, "there will be a broad enough sample so that we can provide results back at the supervisory-union level.''

Maryland, which also has begun using teachers to score performance-based assessments, has had a different experience with recruitment. There, nearly twice the number of teachers needed for scoring applied to participate, according to Robert E. Gabrys, the associate state superintendent for school performance.

But Mr. Gabrys noted that, unlike Vermont, Maryland paid the scorers an honorarium, and held the sessions during the summer.

"We wanted to avoid instructional intrusion,'' he said.

'Victims of Success'

Mr. Brewer pointed out that Vermont had anticipated a large demand for scorers because an unexpectedly large number of districts agreed to participate in the project this year. Although the state had expected the program to expand statewide this year, it was not mandated.

"In a sense, we were victims of success,'' Mr. Brewer said.

Nevertheless, the state's largest district elected not to take part. Teachers in Burlington will score their own students' portfolios, but will not send them to the state, according to Ms. Nelson.

In addition to feeling time pressures, she said, teachers there also felt that they needed additional time to learn how the assessment program works. Only two elementary-school teachers and three middle-school teachers in Burlington took part in the 1990-91 pilot, she said.

Ms. Nelson also noted that the assessment program demanded changes in math curriculum and instruction along the lines proposed by the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics, and that few schools had moved in that direction. By contrast, she noted, writing instruction had been revised a number of years ago.

Citing similar concerns, the Vermont Superintendents Association adopted a resolution in January urging the state to conduct the math assessment on a pilot basis.

Ms. Nelson suggested, however, that the assessment program had hastened curriculum reform, adding that Burlington plans to take part in the math-portfolio assessment next year.

"I haven't spoken to a teacher in Burlington who doesn't feel this is a positive way to go,'' she said.

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