Vermont Public Schools Are Failing Most Vulnerable Students

by Rob Roper 

The latest standardized test results are out, and the results are pretty disappointing. Overall, scores dropped a bit from where they were last year, and, as Secretary of Education Rebecca Holcomb stated, “The achievement gaps between our vulnerable youth and students with greater privilege remain, and in some cases were narrowed, but this was largely a result of score declines for more privileged groups.”

Achievement gaps remain….

Here’s what Holcomb said a year ago at this time: “Our children from more prosperous families continue to rank near the top nationally. Our most vulnerable youth- those living in poverty, with disabilities, from marginalized populations and who speak English as a second – continue to have test scores that are on average lower than our general population.”

And, here’s what Secretary Holcomb’s predecessor, Armando Vilaseca said when he left office in 2013: “I am particularly concerned that we still have not made major progress in closing the achievement gap for students living in poverty (Armando Vilaseca, 11/26/13).

Indeed, virtually identical versions of this paragraph have been cut and pasted into the official press release every year for decades. The education gap between wealthier students, poorer students, and those with special need is a major problem, but nothing the public education system as it is currently structured does anything to fix it.

Vermont public schools do a pretty good job with mainstream kids. However, this year’s statistics show that only 1.67% of special needs students in the 11th grade are proficient in math! Really? Out of 2420 11th graders with special needs only 40 are proficient in math. Are these kids truly uneducable? Or is the system simply failing them?

A legislative summer study committee is currently debating the fate of Vermont’s Independent schools, a major complaint of the public school bureaucracy being that independent schools are somehow unfair to poor and special needs students by not following the same guidelines and practices that public schools do. This — mandating a failed system on schools that are in many cases doing a better job with lower income and special needs students on their own — is beyond Einstein’s definition of insanity. Perhaps a better idea would be to see how many low income and special needs kids we can get out of the public school system and into classrooms that better suit their needs.

For a look at the breakdown of the achievement gap based on this year’s test results, check out the chart below. (FRL means Free and Reduced Lunch)

Status Proficiency % # Of Students
Third Grade
English Language Arts
Not FRL 61.18% 3302
FRL 34.99% 2792
No Special Ed 55.51% 5206
Special Ed 12.05% 888
Math
Not FRL 65.20% 2460.0
FRL 37.33% 2410.2
No Special Ed 58.84% 2450.7
Special Ed 14.53% 2357.2
Fourth Grade
English Language Arts
Not FRL 59.92% 3530
FRL 34.86% 2576
No Special Ed 55.88% 5240
Special Ed 9.82% 866
Math
Not FRL 58.09% 2496.4
FRL 32.37% 2447.6
No Special Ed 52.97% 2489.8
Special Ed 12.53% 2390.7
Fifth Grade
English Language Arts
Not FRL 68.45% 2536.8
FRL 37.44% 2469.2
No Special Ed 63.32% 2527.9
Special Ed 13.14% 2403.8
Math
All Students 42.43% 2504.6
Not FRL 54.47% 2529.8
FRL 26.00% 2470.2
No Special Ed 48.86% 2521.2
Special Ed 8.32% 2417.0
Sixth Grade
English Language Arts
Not FRL 62.54% 2553.2
FRL 37.43% 2499.5
No Special Ed 60.56% 2550.6
Special Ed 10.66% 2433.4
Math
Not FRL 48.09% 2541.4
FRL 25.63% 2485.0
Special Ed 6.12% 2414.8
No Special Ed 45.43% 2538.9
Seventh Grade
English Language Arts
Not FRL 66.22% 2578.6
FRL 38.79% 2517.8
No Special Ed 64.26% 2576.5
Special Ed 9.51% 2441.2
Math
Not FRL 53.69% 2565.9
FRL 28.75% 2503.9
No Special Ed 51.24% 2565.1
Special Ed 5.42% 2418.8
Eighth Grade
English Language Arts
Not FRL 64.74% 2592.6
FRL 38.88% 2533.0
No Special Ed 63.42% 2591.6
Special Ed 9.10% 2453.4
Math
Not FRL 50.99% 2582.1
FRL 25.71% 2511.7
No Special Ed 48.19% 2579.4
Special Ed 4.33% 2425.0
All Students 41.26% 2555.0
Eleventh Grade
English Language Arts
Not FRL 66.51% 2621.7
FRL 39.76% 2546.0
No Special Ed 64.83% 2617.3
Special Ed 11.19% 2462.9
Math
Not FRL 44.79% 2602.9
FRL 17.19% 2511.7
No Special Ed 41.13% 2596.1
Special Ed 1.67% 2419.6


– Rob Roper is president of the Ethan Allen Institute

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