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More improvement needed, that's clear

Published August 16. 2013 4:00AM

It is always challenging to make sense of the annual massive dump of Connecticut standardized test score results by the State Department of Education, but following are a few observations.

• Alarmingly, academic trends in the lower grades moved in the wrong direction statewide.

• Connecticut is showing little and, in some cases, no progress in closing the largest gap in the nation between the academic performance of middle- and upper-income students and their lower-income peers, a gap that acutely affects African-American and Hispanic students.

• New London, designated an alliance district school system - meaning an academically troubled system - showed encouraging but not universal improvement in its test scores. This progress again raises the question of why the Board of Education decided not to renew the contract of Superintendent Nicholas A. Fischer, scheduled to expire at the end of the coming school year. The board has yet to provide a logical rationale for the move.

• Patience will be called for as the package of education reforms approved in 2012 will take years to show results.

In Grades 3-8 fewer Connecticut students scored at or above "goal" in the Connecticut Mastery Test (CMT) when compared with a year ago. A student performing at goal is considered to have the skills, knowledge and critical thinking reasonably expected of a student at his or her grade level. Overall, the average percentage of Connecticut students at or above goal declined from 67.8 percent to 65.9 percent.

More discouraging is that the trend held true across every subgroup; whites and minorities, low- and non-low-income, students learning English and those raised in English-speaking homes all saw declines. The only positive may be that it is an affirmation that drastic change is needed. If anything, the reforms passed in 2012 are not enough. They will include expansion of early childhood education, tying teacher tenure and employment to an evaluation system, greater focus on struggling school systems and expansion of charter and magnet schools.

The news was a bit better for Grade 10 Connecticut Academic Performance Test (CAPT) results. A higher percentage of students scored at or above goal as compared to 2012 and again the trend crossed all subgroups. But the improvement was least where it was needed most. Just 6.7 percent of English language learners reached goal, a meager 0.3 percent increase. Low-income, African-American and Latino/Hispanic subgroups all saw improvements, but of 1 percent or less. Conversely, 65.8 percent of CAPT scores for whites met goal, a 2.1 percent jump. That's good news, certainly, but it widened the achievement gap.

ConnCan, a Connecticut education reform advocacy group, graphically illustrated the slow pace of closing the achievement gap. If the rate of progress seen since 2007 were to be sustained, it would take 76 years to close the CMT gap for low-income students, and 600 years to close the CAPT gap for Latino/Hispanic students, for example.

In New London the progress was largely forward. Grades 5 through 8 saw more students reaching goal in every testing category - reading, writing, mathematics and science - with the lone exception of a slight dip, 0.9 precent, in Grade 7 CMT math scores.

CMT scores dipped across the board in Grade 3, however, including an 11 percent drop in the number of students achieving goal in math as compared to 2012. Grade 4 saw a boost in math success but decreases in reading and writing scores. These disappointing scores in younger grades deserve the administration's attention.

The mixed New London High School CAPT scores remained troublingly low, with improvement in reading and mathematics scores and declines in writing and science from a year ago. The high-water mark, 31 percent reaching goal in writing, is less than half the state average.

Amidst the blizzard of numbers released this week, one jumped out. Among lower-income African-American students, women are graduating from high school at a 76.4 percent rate, compared to 57.6 percent for men. It certainly appears that these young black women are overcoming barriers by working harder and taking their education more seriously. Time to step it up, guys.

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