Student performance gap in local schools persists, new report shows

The latest local Connecticut Mastery Test scores illustrate the same student performance gap the state has been struggling with for years, with low-income students having lower scores than their higher-income peers and most ethnic minority subgroups performing at lower levels than white students.

In the local region as well, suburban and rural school districts outperformed the urban school districts of New London, Norwich and Groton, according to the report released Thursday. The CMT is given to students in grades three to eight each spring in reading, writing and math. Fifth- and eighth-graders also take a science test.

State officials said some measurements of student performance did show that the so-called achievement gap - defined as higher-income students scoring much better on CMTs than low-income students - has narrowed in some cases. But measurements that track the same group of students over several years showed a widening gap.

"Both metrics clearly reveal that the gap in achievement between low- and higher-income students persists," the state Department of Education press release on the CMTs said, "with more than twice the percentage of higher-income students performing at or above the Goal level than lower-income students in many grade levels and content areas."

The state has identified 30 low-performing school districts, including Norwich and New London, as Alliance Districts, making additional funding available for specific and intense reform efforts. In addition, the John B. Stanton School in Norwich was one of four schools statewide designated as a Network School, with the state Department of Education overseeing an intense reform effort.

The state uses statistics on students who qualify for free and reduced-priced lunch to compare students of different income levels, dividing the categories into those who receive the lunch subsidy and those who pay full price for lunch.

In Norwich and Groton, the achievement gap worsened from third to eighth grade. In Groton, 47.6 percent of third-graders qualifying for free and reduced lunch scored at the state's goal level in math - the highest achievement level in the CMT - while 65.6 percent of those who don't receive the lunch subsidy reached goal. In eighth grade, 38.7 percent of students receiving the lunch subsidy reached goal in math, while 73.2 percent of students without free or reduced lunch scored at goal.

New London Superintendent Nicholas Fischer said that because 94 percent of New London students qualify for free and reduced lunch, all students get free lunch and the district does not divide the scores by income levels.

But as in Norwich and Groton, ethnic minorities in New London also scored well below their white peers across the board. Fischer said that gap also incorporates an income gap, and school officials are working to address it.

Fischer said one difference has become evident. Students in lower-income families arrive at school with much lower command of vocabulary than higher-income students, as much as 50 percent lower.

So teachers and administrators are focusing on raising students' grasp on the English language to help them understand classroom lessons and test questions, Fischer said. New London was able to close the achievement gap among African-American students on the 10th grade Connecticut Academic Performance Test this year.

New London saw dramatic improvement in mastery test scores in several categories this year, including jumps of about 10 percentage points or better in students reaching goal in various grades and test subjects, while only sixth-grade writing fell by 10 or more percentage points in meeting both state goal and federal proficiency levels.

Still, Fischer summarized scores at each grade level and highlighted specific areas that need improvement, such as fourth-graders in "making connections and examining content and structure" in the reading portion of the test.

LEARN, the regional educational agency, runs two magnet schools in New London. Students there also take the mastery tests. The scores show combined results for the Regional Multicultural Magnet School and the Dual Language & Arts Magnet Middle School, and scores improved in several categories over last year. Only sixth-grade reading showed significant drops in scores.

Paul Carolan, director the multicultural magnet school, said like New London schools, the focus is on language and vocabulary development, and feeding that into all other curriculum categories to improve student understanding of the subject matter. Teachers also are giving individual attention to students who are not responding to classroom instruction. Students' emotional and social situations also are addressed to improve learning, he said.

"They go together," he said.

Tracking student progress

Norwich Superintendent Abby Dolliver agreed with Fischer that students' exposure to learning is an issue teachers must address among lower-income students. Like New London, Norwich has a large transient population, with many students entering the school district and many others shifting among city schools.

Norwich teachers and administrators already started improving how they track individual students, their achievement levels and needs and matching district funding to meet those needs, Dolliver said. The effort will be the focus of the school district's improvement plan and applications for the additional money the state is offering to Alliance Districts.

Dolliver said internal tracking of student performance showed some improvements this year, but that did not translate into the CMT scores, which showed a mixture of gains, losses and stable results.

Montville Superintendent Pamela Aubin reviews her town's test results not by comparing grade scores from year to year but by tracking students as they progress through the system. She said the district's focus on reading has paid off over the years, while progress in writing and math is "less consistent."

All school districts face major changes in curriculum and in future standardized tests, with the national Common Core standards being implemented along with "Smarter Balanced Assessment," a new computerized test in 2014-15 that will incorporate online research into the test and will steer follow-up questions based on students' answers.

The state Department of Education is running a two-day seminar in August on the changes.

Dolliver said she expects many students will be more comfortable with the online test, since being on the computer is more normal to them than using a pencil to fill in bubbles on an answer sheet.

Now it's up to school districts to make sure their technology is up to speed with the new tests. Norwich recently received donations of computers to upgrade old equipment, and Montville is installing wireless Internet access.

"Kids are more in tune with the computerized systems," Dolliver said.

c.bessette@theday.com

U-BOX

Complete state, district and school-level CMT and CAPT results are available at www.ctreports.com. Parents will receive notification of their children's individual performance results in September.

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