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New London, Norwich improve on academic performance tests

By Claire Bessette and Kimberly Drelich

Publication: The Day

Published August 14. 2013 4:00AM

Results of state academic performance tests released Tuesday showed some improvements in New London and Norwich, the region's two systems considered historically to be under-performing.

The New London school district, which is being governed by a state-appointed special master, showed progress in the percentage of students who reached or exceeded state or federal standards in 70 percent of tested grades and subject areas, according to a state news release.

John B. Stanton Elementary School in Norwich, a state-designated Network School, also showed improvements, with the exception of fifth grade. Overall, Norwich's results on the Connecticut Mastery Tests showed mixed results.

Statewide results on the Connecticut Mastery Test (CMT) for third- through eighth-graders declined across all subjects and grade levels, according to the release. However, the Connecticut Academic Performance Test (CAPT) for 10th graders showed slight progress in all areas except writing.

In New London, fifth and sixth grade results showed particular improvements. For example, this year 39 percent of the city's sixth graders reached or exceeded the state's goal in math, up from 28 percent last year. In addition, 46 percent of sixth graders met or surpassed the state's writing goal, up from 33 percent last year.

"We are pleased and proud to see the level of gain accelerated in New London this year," said state Department of Education Commissioner Stefan Pryor about the results in a conference call with reporters.

Local administrators were encouraged by the scores.

"What our scores tell me is that there is no reason why 80 percent of our students can't reach goal," said Superintendent of Schools Nicholas A. Fischer. "There can be no excuses."

"I'm very pleased with the progress we are making. I also strongly believe we have work ahead of us," he added, further explaining that he was very proud of the district's teachers and staff.

The district's fourth through eighth graders showed improvements in meeting or exceeding state goal and proficiency levels in most subject areas, according to a New London Public Schools press release.

However, the tests also highlighted areas needing improvement, such as third-grade reading and math, which the district said in the release were the areas that reflected the state's downward CMT trend. For example, 40.5 percent of third-grade students reached or exceeded the state goal in reading last year, while this year 35.6 percent did. In math, 35.2 percent met or surpassed the state goal this year, whereas last year 46.2 percent did.

CAPT scores for 10th graders pointed out district goals for improvements in subject areas, including geometry, probability and statistics and interdisciplinary writing, according to the release. The percentage of students reaching or exceeding the state goal increased by 4.4 percentage points in math and by 0.9 percentage points in reading. However, the percentage of students meeting the state goal decreased by 3 percentage points in writing and 4.5 percentage points in science, according to state data. The number of 10th graders who reached or exceeded proficiency levels fell by 16.4 percentage points in reading, 8.2 percentage points in writing, 7.9 percentage points in math and 8.8 percentage points in science.

In New London, students also take Measures of Academic Progress Tests three times a year, which the district said along with CAPTs and CMTs are just two ways to measure progress.

In Norwich, public school administrators said they are not celebrating the mixed results of the CMTs. But Superintendent Abby Dolliver and Curriculum Director Joseph Stefon said the results in part show that the school district already is focusing on the future beyond the CMT.

Norwich has been focusing instead on the new so-called Common Core National Standards, revising curriculum, teacher evaluation systems, data analysis and other essential elements of teaching and learning.

"What they test in the CMT is totally different than the common core tests," Stefon said.

For example, the district's language arts curriculum now being finalized includes no textbooks of anthologies of reading samples, Rather, it consists of books, nonfiction and novels that will be used extensively in the classrooms, Stefon said.

Dolliver said she is not pleased with the overall Norwich CMT results, but certain pockets of improvement show that the new state investment in the John B. Stanton School as a state designated Network School and Norwich overall as an Alliance District, has been successful.

Stanton students improved in most test and grade categories with a notable exception of fifth grade. Dolliver said school officials knew at the start that fifth grade was not performing well, and that will be addressed. Stanton received Network grant money for the first time last year and used the funding to start full-day kindergarten, an extended school day, classroom interventionists to help struggling students and parental liaisons to improve parental involvement.

In math, 54.5 percent of Stanton third graders reached proficiency in 2012. That percentage jumped to 70.8 this year. Fourth graders jumped from 55.6 percent proficient to 69.6 percent. But fifth graders dropped from 71.4 percent to 57.4 percent proficient.

Reading scores at Stanton were mixed, with third graders dropping 3 percent in proficiency, fourth graders improving by 16 percent and fifth graders again dropping by about 7 percent.

In writing, Stanton third graders improved by 6 percent and fourth graders by 10 points and fifth graders improved by 1 percent.

Norwich school officials broke out another subgroup of 282 students who have been in the Norwich school system for the past three years of CMTs, a group Dolliver called "the cohort." Dolliver was very pleased with those scores, saying the consistency over the years pays off for students.

Students in that cohort improved scores across the board, with fewer scoring below the basic level and more scoring at proficient, goal and even advanced levels on the tests. For example, in reading, the percentage of cohort students scoring at goal dropped slightly, but they moved up to the advanced level, which jumped from 3.7 percent to 9.5 percent, Dolliver said.

Depending on the outcome of a federal ruling, Connecticut schools may have the option next year of using the current tests or the new Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium, or SBAC.

Pryor attributed the statewide decline in CMT scores to a misalignment between certain concepts tested and those instructed as districts begin to implement new statewide academic standards, termed "Common Core State Standards."

"It is increasingly apparent that our legacy tests are out of sync with the new Common Core State Standards," he said in a news release. "That's one of the reasons we're enabling districts to accelerate their testing transition, permitting districts to opt into the Common Core-aligned assessments this year..."

The state's 30 Alliance Districts, including New London and Norwich, are receiving greater state funding under Public Act 12-116. Funding will be used this year to help the districts "facilitate the transition to the Common Core State Standards, the implementation of educator evaluation and support systems, and the turnaround of low performing schools," according to the state release.

c.bessette@theday.com

k.drelich@theday.com

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