Most local school districts see drop in performance rates

Most school districts in southeastern Connecticut saw declines in overall performance between 2015-16 and 2016-17, per a 12-factor system from the state Department of Education.

The department this past week released the results of the 2016-17 Next Generation Accountability System.

While the state previously measured performance solely by state assessments, this system — in its third year — includes indicators like academic growth, chronic absenteeism rates, college and career readiness coursework, four-year graduation rate, physical fitness and arts access.

The average statewide score, called the Accountability Index, is 73.2 out of a possible 100. From highest to lowest, the local districts above the state average are East Lyme, Stonington, Montville, Griswold, North Stonington, Waterford, Salem and Ledyard.

Below the state average are Groton, Norwich Free Academy, LEARN, Preston, New London, Interdistrict School for Arts and Communication, and Norwich.

ISAAC and New London, while below the state average, were the only districts in the region to see an increase in the Accountability Index from 2015-16 to 2016-17. Statewide, about three-quarters of districts saw a decrease.

But one positive the Department of Education highlighted was improvement in college and career readiness. The share of Connecticut students reaching benchmark on SAT, Advanced Placement, ACT or International Baccalaureate exams increased from 40.7 to 43.5 percent.

Ajit Gopalakrishnan, chief performance officer for the Department of Education, noted that the state has been supporting administration of the PSAT in Alliance Districts for the past few years.

He added that the department sent out 20,000 personal letters in January to students who showed promise of succeeding on an AP exam, and that it covers costs for AP exams taken by students in low-income families, and not just in Alliance Districts.

Statewide, the indicator to see the biggest decline was academic growth, with an 8.4 percent drop in English Language Arts growth and a 3.3 percent drop in math. The decreases were even greater for high-needs students, which includes students with disabilities, English as a second language learners and those living in poverty.

Growth is measured for students in grades four through eight and is based on the Smarter Balanced assessment.

"It's not a cookie-cutter test in that you can do test prep for this test. You really can't," Gopalakrishnan said. He added that improvements in ELA growth will be based on "fidelity to implementation" and not "trying to drill and kill and practice test questions."

Norwich has the lowest Accountability Index among districts in the region, but curriculum and instruction director Thomas Baird said this number is "not a true reflection of the overall district performance."

Indeed, the district score of 58.09 is lower than the scores for eight of the nine individual schools. That's because Norwich Public Schools doesn't operate its own independent high school — Norwich Free Academy is broken out as a separate district — and so high school measures represent only out-of-district, special education students.

Because that number is relatively small, there is a lot of volatility in the numbers. For example, the share of students taking college- and career-readiness coursework declined from 55.31 to 27.91 percent.

Administrators point to strides in individual schools

Baird noted that Thomas W. Mahan School was named one of 124 Schools of Distinction across the state, for its growth in ELA and math. Mahan was among the top 10 percent in the state for growth among all students and among high-needs students.

Also in the top 10 percent for both categories were Flanders School in East Lyme and Oakdale School in Montville.

At 1.06 percent, Oakdale has one of the lowest rates of chronic absenteeism in the state.

Montville Assistant Superintendent Laurie Pallin said the Family with Service Needs Board reviews "cases that are brought to them for students who are at risk of chronic absenteeism or are already of concern because of their attendance, and we really work hard to brainstorm strategies family by family."

Oakdale was named a School of Distinction for the third year in a row, and joining it in Montville for 2016-17 is Mohegan School.

Still, both Oakdale and Mohegan saw drops in their Accountability Index from the previous year.

Winthrop STEM Elementary Magnet School in New London, also named a School of Distinction, saw its index increase from 67.37 to 73.22.

Ivelise Velazquez, chief academic officer in New London, said the biggest focus for the district is on growth, especially for high-needs students, considering the district has large populations of English language learners and special education students.

Tops in science, fitness

The clear majority of districts in both the region and the state see the highest test scores for ELA, then math, then science. An exception is Marine Science Magnet High School of Southeastern Connecticut in Groton, a School of Distinction that had the highest science scores in 2016-17 of any high school in the state.

Principal Nicholas Spera noted that students take six science courses across their first two years: Freshmen take Marine Studies I, Integrated Science I and biology, while sophomores take Marine Studies II, environmental science and chemistry.

The 271-student school also saw the highest fitness rate for any high school in the state.

Spera said that for the fitness testing day, "We make it this extravaganza, go hard" — and that means he shows up in a 1970s tracksuit.

"Our students really are aware that these results go public, and they don't want to be known as the non-fit students in Connecticut," he said with a laugh.

Gopalakrishnan said he thinks the shift from focusing solely on test scores to the 12-factor system "has been overwhelmingly welcomed as a positive measure."

"This is a measure that we accept responsibility to track, and it will make us a better school district," Groton Superintendent Michael Graner said. "I'm 100 percent in favor of this accountability system."

Groton saw increases in math and ELA performance, college- and career-readiness coursework participation, fitness performance and arts access, but decreases in math and ELA growth, four-year graduation rate and science performance.

e.moser@theday.com

Top achievers

Top achievers among southeastern Connecticut Schools:

Highest ELA assessment performance: Lyme Consolidated School

Highest math assessment performance: North Stonington Elementary School

Highest science assessment performance: Marine Science Magnet High School, Groton

Highest ELA growth: Thomas W. Mahan School, Norwich

Highest math growth: Dean Mills School, Stonington

Highest share of students taking college- and career-readiness coursework: East Lyme High School

Highest four-year graduation rate: Marine Science Magnet High School, Groton

Highest postsecondary entrance: Lyme-Old Lyme High School

Highest arts access (only high schools listed): Lyme-Old Lyme High School

Data source: Connecticut State Department of Education

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