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State: New London High School no longer a 'turnaround school'

The state Department of Education announced Friday that New London High School has improved its academic performance enough that it no longer is a "turnaround school."

The announcement came as part of the state's release of Smarter Balanced Assessment Curriculum test results.

New London High School, along with Bloomfield High School, "emerged as bright spots of the 2015 Smarter Balanced administration," the state education department stated in a news release.

Turnaround schools represent the lowest 5 percent of performing schools in the state, said Kelly Donnelly, chief of staff for the state Department of Education.

“Their progress was so strong that they no longer fall into this category,” Donnelly said in an email. “And the fact that they were able to make this growth in a time of transition to more challenging material, makes their progress all the more notable.”

At New London High School, the announcement over the loudspeaker that the state Department of Education had called the school a “bright spot” was met with cheers, jubilation and even some tears, Principal Tommy Thompson III said Friday.

“We really do believe the high school has turned a corner, but for our teachers, our students and the community members that are in the school each day,” Thompson said. “We didn’t need a test score to tell us that.”

But Thompson said the school community was thrilled to have accomplished the turnaround. At the high school, 44 percent of 11th graders met or exceeded the achievement level in language arts, while 19.8 percent met or exceeded the achievement level in math.

He said the high school has raised its expectations for students and staff, not through test prep, but through a steady diet of reading, writing, debate and discussion.

“We knew if we focused on the right things, then good things would happen,” he said.

For the overall New London school district, 30.6 percent of students met or exceeded the achievement level in language arts, while 18.7 percent met or exceeded the target in math.

The first round of results from Connecticut's new standardized exams show more students than expected are excelling at English language arts, but math skills remain a challenge, according to scores released Friday.

The math scores matched state estimates, but Education Commissioner Dianna Wentzell said there is "significant room for improvement" and announced that a new council made up of educators, industry and business leaders and experts in math, science and technology to assist teachers.

"Math really stands out as an area that demands further inquiry and demands further emphasis," she said.

This year, the Smarter Balanced Assessment Curriculum, or SBAC tests, replaced the Connecticut Mastery Test and Connecticut Academic Performance Test for students in grades 3 through 8 and 11.

About 267,000 students took the test this spring, which is computerized and based on the so-called Common Core education standards. School districts and parents have been eagerly awaiting the final scores.

Statewide results show more than 55 percent of students are meeting or exceeding the achievement level for English and about 39 percent for math.

Prior to releasing the numbers, officials repeatedly warned that these scores would look lower than previous test scores and people should not make direct comparisons.

"They're really different assessments that have a different degree of rigor and measure different things, so it's not a useful comparison," Wentzell said.

Southeastern Connecticut school districts' scores varied widely, and several administrators contacted Friday by The Day said they still are analyzing the data to determine their schools' strengths and weaknesses.

At Norwich Free Academy, the region's largest high school, 44.3 percent of students met or exceeded the state's achievement level for English/Language Arts, while 24 percent met or exceeded the achievement level for math.

Head of School David Klein said NFA is analyzing both results to improve student performance and is providing training to teachers. Starting in February, NFA teachers and administrators started working with educational consultant Michael Wasta on the use of data to improve student achievement.

Norwich public schools Superintendent Abby Dolliver said Norwich expects to see improvement in future tests and is pleased that the state will use "growth" as a major factor in assessing school performance in future years.

Norwich's overall math scores were "disappointing," Dolliver said, with only 16.6 percent of students meeting or exceeding the achievement level, with individual grade scores ranging from 12.9 percent for fifth grade to 21.2 percent for third grade.

Norwich implemented a new math curriculum last year, and Dolliver said early second year results already are showing signs of improvement.

Preston in recent years scored very high on the former Connecticut Mastery Tests, mostly meeting the town Board of Education's high goal of having at least 80 percent scoring at or above state goals in all test categories.

On the new tests, Superintendent John Welch said Preston exceeded state averages on both English and math scores at all grade levels, with 65.4 percent reaching or exceeding the state achievement level in English and 52.3 percent in math overall.

Welch said he is "delighted with our performance," and said there is very little gap between scores at the Preston Veterans' Memorial School and Preston Plains Middle School.

In East Lyme, 77 percent of students met or exceeded the achievement level in English/language arts, and 60.9 percent reached the same measures in math.

“We did not know what to expect given we are using a new and different measure,” Superintendent Jeffrey Newton said. “We had been told that in many cases performance may look lower on SBAC, so again, overall I’m pleased with where we are at this time. I look forward to digging further into the data with administration and staff, while working from this new baseline that has now been set for East Lyme from which our students will grow.”

In Lyme-Old Lyme, 77.7 percent met or exceeded the achievement level in language arts, and 67.7 percent met or exceeded the achievement level in math.

Lyme-Old Lyme Superintendent of Schools Ian Neviaser said the district is considering the results as baseline data.

The state's largest teacher's union, the Connecticut Education Association, repeated its criticism of the test on Friday, arguing the new results are not an accurate reflection of what students know and are able to accomplish.

CEA President Sheila Cohen told The Associated Press on Friday that she considers the Smarter Balanced tests "a failed experiment" that's particularly unfair to younger students, those from low-income families without regular computer access at home, and students who have special needs.

"SBAC is neither meaningful in making critical judgments about student, school and teacher performance, nor is it an accurate gauge by which decisions about individualized student instruction, programs, and funding should be determined," Cohen said in a statement. "The test technology alone is an utter disaster."

Unionized teachers were successful earlier this year in persuading the General Assembly to pass legislation to stop the administration of the 11th grade SBAC test.

Federal education authorities recently approved an application previously submitted by the state to replace the test with the SAT, starting in the 2015-16 school year.

Some parents and teachers have voiced concern about the large volume of student testing.

Wentzell said she has a lot of confidence in the Smarter Balanced assessment, adding how Connecticut was a lead developer of the test, which also was administered in 17 other states.

"There's nothing more fair than honest information about achievement," she said. "We can't deliver on the most important aspect of equity and the civil right of a good public education if we don't know where every kid in the state stands with regard to having had access (to quality education) and the ability to achieve."

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

c.bessette@theday.com

Twitter: @Bessettetheday

k.drelich@theday.com

Twitter: @KimberlyDrelich

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