Early research proves positive for state’s education reform

Monitor staff
Published: 4/15/2017 11:26:33 PM

A University of New Hampshire researcher is studying outcomes for students who take part in an education pilot program in the state and finding promising early results – especially for kids with disabilities.

The findings could help the state when it asks the federal government for permission to continue the program, and suggests New Hampshire might have found a way to make serious headway in narrowing the gap between kids with disabilities and kids without.

“I think these are very encouraging results,” said Carla Evans, a PhD candidate at UNH that’s studying the outcomes of the program for her dissertation.

PACE, or Performance Assessment of Competency Education, is an initiative certain schools have rolled out with a waiver from the federal government to trim down the number of standardized tests their students need to take.

In PACE districts, students take the Smarter Balanced assessments in math and English just once in elementary school and once in middle school, instead of every year from third- to eighth-grade. In between, they take assessments that are designed at the local level and aligned with the state’s competency-based curriculum.

To see how well the program is working, Evans is comparing the scores of participating students on their eighth-grade math and English SBACs with results from the rest of the state.

Evans has only finished analyzing the data on math scores, but has so far found that students in PACE districts outperformed their peers in non-participating districts across the board, starting in the second year of the program’s implementation.

But the her most notable finding? Special education students in PACE districts did basically as well as students who weren’t on special education plans.

That’s a startling result, because students with disabilities, non-white students, and low-income students consistently do worse on standardized tests than their more affluent, white, and non-disabled peers. Closing these so-called achievement gaps is a major aim – so far elusive – of most education reform efforts.

The results even stunned State Board of Education member Bill Duncan, who asked Evans when she presented her findings to the board if there were any caveats to her results.

“This looks breathtaking. This looks like a very big deal, and I’m just asking you, in order to say ‘nah, that’s not that big a deal,’ ” Duncan told Evans. “… Because you just don’t see this kind of result from education initiatives.”

And Evans does suggest caution when interpreting her results.

“There’s definitely positive effects for students with disabilities in PACE schools, but I don’t feel comfortable enough to say ‘and it’s closed the achievement gap’,” she said.

Evans said she needed to do a deeper dive to see what, specifically, schools that are piloting PACE might be doing to support special education students. And she noted that she didn’t have information about the types of disabilities students had.

But she said it made intuitive sense that a competency-based reform, which in large part centers on teaching at a student’s individual pace, would show gains for students with disabilities.

“What we might be seeing is an artifact of meeting students where they are at,” she said.

Evans crunched the numbers on the effects of PACE on low-income and minority students too, but said she didn’t find a statistically significant narrowing of the achievement gap for students on free and reduced lunch. And for minority kids, the sample size was too small.

Nine districts are currently piloting PACE, including Concord.

Concord Assistant Superintendent Donna Palley said the district was wrapping up its first full year of the program, but that it had already seen improvements in math.

“Certainly we’re seeing teachers excited about the work, developing performance assessments, and seeing students really engaged,” she said.

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