Fourth grade teacher Linda Dion helps students Kiera Robie, Spencer Bidwell, Ethan Maynard and Emily Lurvey during an experiment to determine how many paperclips a magnet can hold, a project based on the fact that an ant can carry up to 50 times its body weight. The project helps to build inquiry, or measurement of a hypothesis, a skill tested on on the NECAP exam. �

Fourth grade teacher Linda Dion helps students Kiera Robie, Spencer Bidwell, Ethan Maynard and Emily Lurvey during an experiment to determine how many paperclips a magnet can hold, a project based on the fact that an ant can carry up to 50 times its body weight. The project helps to build inquiry, or measurement of a hypothesis, a skill tested on on the NECAP exam.

Fourth grade science scores took a dramatic downturn in the latest round of state tests, according to data released by the Vermont Department of Education last week.

Scores dropped from 61 percent proficient or above to 36 percent on the New England Common Assessment Program (NECAP), compared to the state’s 54 percent. Last year, fourth grade scores improved by 33 percent points.

Grade eight and 11 scores both improved by 1 point to 26 and 18 percent proficient or above, respectively. Still, each grade level tested fell below the state averages.
District administrators were surprised by the grade four results.

“It’s somewhat disappointing in all the hard work we’re doing,” said Tammy Boone, data assessment coordinator. “We have to go deeper. We have to look at the questions. We have to see what type of questions they were asking.”

Milton Elementary School is in its fourth year of a multi-part process to build inquiry, or the practice of testing hypotheses in the scientific method. The district’s approach includes teaching to state standards, working with consultants and providing professional development for teachers, according to Kerry Sewell, director of curriculum and instruction. The high school started the process last year.

“All those have been going on in concert throughout this time,” Sewell said. “We’re disappointed, and, I think, somewhat confused.”

While these scores were concerning, Boone said there were at least 30 students in each grade level that were within four or five points of proficiency.    Boone also noted that the “substantially below proficient” category had fewer students in the older grades: 8 percent of eighth graders improved from that bracket this year, as did 10 percent of 11th graders.

“Even though the overall proficiency level’s not there, you change curriculums, you make changes: you can’t change everything in a year,” Boone said. “Hopefully we’ll in time see change.”

The district did see improvement for grade eight and 11 low-income students, measured by enrollment in the free-and-reduced lunch program. Proficient or above scores jumped 11 percent points for eighth and 11 points for 11th-graders. Fourth grade scores dropped by 14 percent points.

Students with disabilities improved by 1 percent point for grades eight and 11 but dropped by 25 points for grade four.

Boone and Sewell said that if the district teaches to the standards, all students will improve despite their grade level, family income or disability.

“If you do a good job teaching the standards, this test will fall in place,” Boone said.

Sewell said, “They get a solid education; they’re part of everything: those kids move, despite their circumstances.”

The district will continue building inquiry but also has a new program and course this year that emphasizes scientific exploration.

Thanks to a grant, students in grades two, three and five will travel to Burlington’s Echo Center for science lessons that align with Milton’s curriculum, Sewell said.

Ninth graders also have a new course in which students will learn about geophysics through studying the earth. Last year’s course imbued knowledge of biology and chemistry through studying the human body.

“The goal is to take things we think [students] would be interested in and then embed the science in that,” Sewell said. “That process is continuing, so we hope it will bear some fruit at some point.”

As with every round of NECAPs, the district will review the released exam materials, not to teach to the test but to analyze the question types and whether they use vocabulary that isn’t emphasized in Milton’s curriculum, Boone said.

Despite the low scores, Sewell wants students and families to know that Milton students can do better than anyone else in the county, he said.

“It’s not about them; it’s about us and our systems, and we need to make it better for them,” he said, “because it does affect them. It does give an image. It does give almost an inferiority complex to some degree, and it’s unfounded.”

Even though the fourth grade scores dropped, last year’s data shows that the students can improve scores significantly, Sewell said.

“We’re going to get there again,” he said. “We’re just going to plug away at it.”