Published February 06. 2012 4:00AM
New London - Janeska Vargas and Benisha Obas ordered strawberry lemonade, grilled shrimp alfredo, a bacon burger and molten chocolate cake on Saturday, but not at a local restaurant.
Instead, the pair were in a New London High School classroom getting in extra practice for the math portion of the Connecticut Academic Performance Test, which they'll begin taking next month.
The friends, along with 30 of their sophomore peers, worked to calculate their final bills, including the state's sales tax and an 18 percent tip. This was the fourth of seven CAPT Academy sessions, three-hour classes with four teachers on hand to help students prepare for the test.
"It's good. It's going to help us improve on our CAPT scores," Vargas said. "Everyone thinks we're dumb and that our school is really bad, but we try and we're actually smart. We have potential and we're intelligent."
Attendance for the sessions has doubled since they began last month.
Last year, the high school's 10th-graders recorded the lowest scores in the state on the reading portion of the CAPT. This year, teachers have placed unyielding emphasis on the test by incorporating examples of its questions into everyday lesson plans, projects and homework assignments.
When the 195 New London sophomores take the test beginning March 5, school officials and teachers are counting on the CAPT-related instruction to raise reading and mathematics scores by 5 percent, a goal the school set for itself at the beginning of the school year.
The CAPT covers mathematics, reading, writing and science in nine sessions over nine days. It tests a student's ability to read text, understand it, interpret it, and refer to it to explain his or her thinking.
Last year, only 37.4 percent of New London's 10th-graders reached the "proficient" level and only 8.9 percent reached "goal" in the reading portion of the test. New London's scores were much lower than the state average - 81.9 percent of 10th-graders across the state tested at or above "proficient," while 44.8 percent tested at or above "goal."
"Proficient" is the standard measure of whether schools are making adequate progress as defined by the federal No Child Left Behind law. "Goal" is a higher standard set by the state of Connecticut.
In one English classroom last week, teacher Deanna Brucoli displayed a short in-class essay written by sophomore Khaadijah Reed as an example of a great response to a CAPT question. In Reed's essay about a particular story, her interpretation and conclusion both referred to the original text and gave examples of how the character had changed during the course of the story - exactly what one portion of the test looks for.
Reed says her work wasn't always exemplary.
"I think all of the prep has helped me," she said. "I went from getting a 1 to (scoring) a 3 or 4 on the CAPT questions. In the beginning of the year, I didn't have details or use text evidence and now my response is being read to the class.
"We know that this is serious and we know we need to get better," she said, "and if we want to get out of here, we're going to have to get it done.
"I love my class," Reed said. "The sophomore class has reached a lot of goals in the past, and I think we'll exceed the 5 percent goal and really surprise people."
Sophomore Olivia Galeana said she has spent additional time outside of school brushing up on her math and English skills.
"I know that I need help in math and I work on English, too, but they're just bringing up the science part of the test in classes now, and I don't feel so confident about that," she said.
But some students, like Chante Parker, feel there is so much CAPT-related instruction that it interferes with their ability to focus on their other schoolwork.
"They over-prepare us with all of the CAPT work," Parker said. "After the test, what are we going to do? We've spent all year learning how to take this one test."
When asked whether she felt prepared to take the test, she said, "I kind of do and I kind of don't."
"I won't know if I'm prepared enough until I take the test, but I know how important it is that I do well. Some of us don't get how important it is because they don't take learning the material seriously until it's too late."
At the beginning of this school year, 2 percent of the sophomore class tested at or above proficient on samples of the literature portion of the CAPT. Last month's midterm exam results show that 71 percent of those students are now testing at or above proficient.
The English midterm was modeled on four questions from the "Response to Literature" portion of the CAPT. As a result, student scores serve as an indicator of how they may fare on the test.
For those who didn't do as well on the midterm as they had hoped and therefore may not perform well on the CAPT, sophomore English teachers and the school's literacy coach Maureen Ruby are providing instruction based on individual needs.
"The last 20 days (before the test) will be used to get all four questions back in their head," second-year English teacher Melissa Parker said Tuesday. "It's a last review of what they have done all year and a reminder of how far they've come from the beginning of the year, because they can all do things they weren't able to back in September.
"At the beginning of the year we thought, how are we going to get 5 percent?" she said. "But now, looking at how far they've come, if they don't improve, I'll be shocked. I really think they can do it."
Principal William "Tommy" Thompson is counting on the months-long effort to getting the students ready.
"We shouldn't need a cram session if we've been methodically working on the skills all year, which we have been," he said. "Every year, when we're labeled as a 'failing school' or a 'failing school district,' the kids feel it.
"I'd love to see someone look at a student who is here on a Saturday, in the eye, and tell them they're a failure or say that to a teacher who just finished teaching their heart out," he said.
School administrators, including Thompson and Ruby, are adamant that it would be unfair to place the blame on the students if the goal isn't met.
"If we don't make the 5 percent, I would at least pick up the mirror before putting the kids under the magnifying glass," Thompson said.
He said that for students to succeed on the CAPT and to believe that the effort they put into their studies is worth it, every single person in the school needs to provide the students with support.
"In order to change the trajectory here and to turn around, you have to create dramatic, seismic interactions with the students every day that goes to the core," he said. "… You have to believe in the marrow of your bones that it's worth doing and it will work."
If the school fails to meet the 5 percent improvement goal it set for itself in the fall, administrators would lose the privilege of deciding for themselves how to spend an $800,000 School Improvement Grant and instead would have to yield to the state's directive on how to spend the money.
The grant was awarded to New London last May by the state Department of Education. According to the state, the goal of the school improvement grants is to fund "chronically low-achieving" schools to "dramatically transform school culture and increase student outcomes."
The high school must show that it is implementing the improvement plan it submitted as part of the grant application. The plan specifies that the school must reach three-year achievement goals in reading and math on the CAPT, must work with a state education department technical team that was assigned to the school last year, and must be monitored monthly.
"The idea is that you earn your freedom," Thompson said.