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Berlin near top in NECAPS for North Country

February 17, 2010
LISBON – An analysis of last fall's NECAP (New England Common Assessment Program) results show good news for schools like Lisbon, Littleton and Berlin high schools, and bad news for White Mountains Regional.

Lisbon High School broadly out performed all other North Country high schools. In every area – reading, writing and math – Lisbon's 11th graders' mean scaled scores were better than the 10 other area schools and most of the state's other high schools. The standardized test is used by the New Hampshire Department of Education to judge the success of local schools. Only 11th grade students are tested at the high school level. While Littleton High School came in a close second, the third place position was nearly a statistical dead-heat between Berlin, Profile, Lin Wood and Groveton high schools.

Lisbon's 30 juniors' test results revealed a wide-ranging competency. A full 43 percent of the students obtained a level of "proficienct with distinction," the highest rating, in reading and no students received the lowest scoring level of "substantially below proficient" or "partially proficient" in reading or writing.

Steve Sexton, Lisbon's principal, was quick to share credit with his staff and students, but added "this is a small group" and "it only takes one or two kids to change it." He acknowledged that the school "motivated kids to try" by offering some creative incentives, like a chance to win an iPod. NECAP tests are one of a half-dozen standardized tests, which juniors typically take. One of the key differences is that there are no consequences to the individual students, but there are penalties to schools that perform poorly. Sexton said "The test itself is not hard," he said, but the key is to encourage them to take it seriously and that, he said, "Made all the difference."

Sexton, who is on his second stint as principal with a nine year break in between, recognizes the rareness of the Lisbon's kindergarten to 12th grade school system. "It is unique;" he said "there are not many." Nationally, small, local schools have given way to larger regional schools.

Berlin High principal Gary Bisson said the school saw a large jump in its overall scores two years ago, and it would have been difficult to duplicate that performance a second year in a row. Teachers instead concentrated on improving writing scores, he said, and the scores went up 20 percent.

"All in all considering the demographics we're doing very well," he said.

Berlin's scores have suffered in recent years because it has had a tough time educating two groups, he said: special education students and students from poorer households.

"We are now at or above the state average in both reading and math with both these groups," he said, a key to the overall improvement of Berlin's standings.

Eric Anderson, Principal of White Mountain Regional High School, in Whitefield, was "very disappointed" in his school's results. "Our juniors were not adequately prepared," he said. WMRHS's 103 11th graders performed accumulatively worse than any other school in the region. They were last in reading, math and next to last in writing. The vast majority 84 percent in math and 65 percent in writing failed to achieve a level of proficiency in writing and math, slightly more than half – 53 percent were proficient in reading. Yet within the reading test, WMRHS had the highest level of readers, 19 percent, which are "substantially below proficiency." Anderson, who is in his second year at the helm at WMRHS, said, "We have work to do."

Littleton faired well in the test just a few points below Lisbon. Al Smith, Littleton High School's principal, said the results "were much better this year, especially in reading and math." Overall, 61 percent of Littleton juniors' achieved proficiency in writing, which was the highest in the region, Berlin was next with 56 percent and then Lisbon and Pittsburg with 53 percent each; the state-wide average is for proficiency in writing was 50 percent.

Smith acknowledges that considerable time was spent preparing the students for the test, but added, "We aren't teaching to the test, but rather to the standards." The NECAP he said has forced schools to look more closely at what is being taught and making sure there are no gaps. As well, he noted that test provides important data on individual students, which allows schools to specialize the instruction where it is most needed. Smith said, the key is to improve test results over time and build a level of consistency.

Mike Kelly, Principal of Profile High and Middle School, in Bethlehem, said the NECAP is one of several measures as to how well students are doing. "It is an aspect," he said, "and we take it seriously and use it." Kelly so believes in transparency that he produces an annual report that explains all the available data. One general concern he has is the state-wide drop in performance that occurs between in 7th and 8th grade and 11th grade.

Pierre Couture, Principal of Groveton High and Middle School said, "Overall," he was "pleased" with the results. He pointed to the "gains in math" and in seventh and eighth grade scores. He said more than anything else the test provides information that useful as it relates to the "scope and sequence of the curriculum" and the type of questions that his students have trouble with. A certain number of test questions are released so educators can use the data to find common weaknesses. Couture pointed out that some questions that prohibited the use of calculators proved to be troublesome. "Students need to be weaned off the computer's (calculator)," he added.

Math was a consistent problem across the state with 33 percent of the students meeting the proficiency standard in math, and the North Country was no different. Only Pittsburg (47 percent), Lisbon (39 percent) and Groveton High School (35 percent) exceeded the state-wide average for proficiency in math. Several students — three percent to be exact — at Profile and Groveton scored "proficiency with distinction" a feat that only two percent of the high schools students achieve in New Hampshire.

There is a value in transparency and competition among schools, said Don Wharton, a retired President of Plymouth State University and now a resident of Landaff. "Even rough measures are valuable," he said. "The basic instinct of administrators and teachers is to do well," he added, and these tests "lead to self examination" and "competition." All this does have an impact because, he said, "It's a spur to get better" and "Peer pressure does matter."

One statistical challenge is the small population of the North Country schools. Lisbon's junior class is little more than two-dozen students and Berlin's, the largest, has 128 students. One student's performance can skew an entire school. For example, Stratford High School had only one 11th grade student so their results were too small to be factored at all or possibly it put too much pressure on a single student.

The full results of the NECAP assessments for all of the tested grade levels at each school are available on the Department of Education website at www.ed.state.nh.us. (Click Data and Reports; Assessment Tests; NECAP)

— Erik Eisele also contributed to this report

(Jeff Woodburn is a regular contributor to the Littleton Courier and a former teacher at White Mountains Regional High School)

Martin Lord Osman
Brewster Academy
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