New London — Months of practice and Saturday study sessions have paid off.
Statewide academic performance scores were released Thursday, and last year's 10th-graders have posted the highest scores in more than five years in all categories of the Connecticut Academic Performance Test.
The class nearly eliminated the reading achievement gap between African-American and white students, and surpassed the statewide achievement level for African-Americans by more than 20 percentage points.
They shattered the 5 percent reading and math improvement goals set by the district for their grade. So did the special education student and English language learner subgroups.
Meanwhile, student performance on the Connecticut Mastery Test, given to third- through eighth-graders, was uneven. Third- and fourth-graders showed overall improvement over last year, while sixth-graders' scores decreased from last year in reading, writing and math.
While a higher percentage of fifth-graders met the state standard known as "goal" in reading, writing, math and science, the percentage of students who met the federal standard of "proficient" in writing and math declined from last year.
Administered in March, the CAPT covered four subjects in nine sessions over nine days. It tests a student's ability to read text, and understand, interpret and refer to it to explain his or her thinking.
New London High administrators are reveling in the success of the incoming junior class.
"I can't help but think that we have just changed the trajectory of our scores and that the work we've done all year, and in the past couple of years, is increasing these kids' life prospects," Principal William "Tommy" Thompson said. "This wasn't luck. This was very intentional. This is a victory for the kids, the teachers and the community. This is something that we all wanted and needed and it's the result of a real team effort. There wasn't just one individual who made this happen."
Thursday's report shows double-digit percentage point improvements in reading, writing, math and science over last year.
Classes from September to March practiced intensively. Some students questioned whether the constant CAPT exercises would help or hurt their scores.
Thompson said the "intense" focus on supporting the individual learning needs of each student and the level of support services provided to the staff created "highly effective teachers, and, in turn, better scores."
Last school year, every English, math and science class focused on CAPT. Practice was embedded in students' elective classes in the form of writing reflections. Students were asked to answer questions on their classwork, quizzes and tests the way they would on the CAPT, and teachers scored students' answers with CAPT rubrics.
Superintendent of Schools Nicholas Fischer on Thursday credited the district's revised teacher evaluation system with creating a sense of increased accountability.
The most significant increases are in the percentage of students who met the national standard of "proficient" set by the No Child Left Behind law in reading and writing. School districts must meet yearly progress measures that are based on how many students achieve reading and math proficiency on the CAPT and CMT.
This year, 70.7 percent of New London 10th-graders were CAPT proficient in reading, a jump of 33.3 percentage points from last year. There was an increase of 17.7 percentage points in the number of students who tested at or above the state goal level in reading. "Goal" is a standard set by the state; it is higher than the federal standard of "proficient."
In writing, 77.1 percent of students tested at or above proficiency, an increase of 24.6 percentage points above last year. There was also an increase of 17.7 percentage points in the number of students who tested at or above goal level in writing.
Across the state, 59.7 percent of African-American students scored as proficient or above, whereas in New London, 81.3 percent of African-Americans achieved proficiency — nearly equal to the 82.1 percent of white students who reached that level.
Students who tested at the below-basic level in reading dropped from 28 percent last year to 5.7 percent this year, and the number of students testing at below basic in writing dropped from 22.6 percent to 3.8 percent.
In science, the number of students achieving goal level increased 11.8 percentage points.
Mathematics showed the least improvement toward achieving the state goal level. Still, the district showed increases in all four areas of math and met its 5 percent improvement goal, with 21.7 percent of students testing at or above goal level.
"We're setting the bar higher, and students are reaching it. My premise is that you're going to get what you expect, and our students are proving how bright and capable they really are by showing these significant improvements," Fischer said.
Although CMT scores in grades three through eight do show improvement, Fischer is setting his sights on improving instruction at the elementary levels.
"We have to look at two things," he said, "how well a kid is being prepared in fourth and fifth grade for what they're facing in sixth grade, and what we need to do to improve articulation between the grades about what skills and knowledge they have, and what skills and knowledge they need."
The district's recently state-appointed special master, Steven Adamowski, said the scores are a "great first step."
"The gains are very encouraging. I think that there are other steps ahead in the future in order to close the achievement gap for New London students," Adamowski said.
He said the test scores reflect the need to retain the district's teachers.
"These results in some ways point out the need to stabilize the staff, the leadership and the people who have worked hard to produce these results. ... This is a first step in a much longer journey, and it of course does not address the threats to the district posed by the governance and financial situations."
New London's budget woes threatened 68 teaching positions this spring. Earlier this month, all the positions were restored, but it's unclear how many teachers have in the meantime found jobs elsewhere.
A year ago, New London's 10th-grade class had the lowest reading scores in the state. Only 37.4 percent of sophomores reached the "proficient" level, and only 8.9 percent reached "goal."
"What this proves is that when you raise expectations at any grade level and improve the quality of instruction, academic achievement will go up," Fischer said. "The kids in New London are just as capable as they are anywhere else in this country."