July 28, 2007
By ROBERT A. FRAHM, Courant Staff Writer
After another round of discouraging reading scores on statewide tests, state officials pledged Friday to look for new answers, possibly including stiffer requirements for training and licensing new teachers.
Despite spending nearly $190 million to bolster public school reading programs over much of the past decade, the state reported slight erosion of reading scores on this year's Connecticut Mastery Test, continuing a gradual downward trend that began five years ago.
Along with similar declines recorded by Connecticut students on an earlier nationwide test, the latest state results highlight the need for a renewed effort to improve reading skills, including severely lagging scores among low-income and minority students, officials said.
"It's quite serious," said state Education Commissioner Mark K. McQuillan. "It's at the heart of the achievement gaps we're trying to overcome. [Reading] is the whole foundation."
There were bright spots, too, in Friday's results, including solid gains in mathematics performance at every grade and modest improvements in writing. The annual test of reading, mathematics and writing was given last spring to all public school students in grades 3 through 8.
Among the findings:
Some of the biggest gains in math came in fifth and sixth grades, with 66 percent of fifth-graders and 64 percent of sixth-graders meeting the state goal - each grade up 5 percentage points from a year ago.
Girls outscored boys by substantial margins in reading and writing and, for the first time in years, caught up to boys in mathematics.
Black and Hispanic students trailed white students by large margins. Compared with white children, four to five times as many black and Hispanic students in every subject scored at the "below basic" category - the lowest level on the test. In third grade, for example, 24 percent of black children and 23 percent of Hispanic children fell below the basic level in mathematics, compared with 5 percent of white children.
It was the reading scores that drew much of the attention and that could lead to pressure to change the way new teachers are trained. Under state rules, new teachers are required to take only two courses in reading instruction before being licensed, but some educators believe that is not enough.
"They come to us unprepared to teach literacy," Doris J. Kurtz, New Britain superintendent of schools, said Friday during a state briefing for superintendents on the new mastery test scores. "I find that disgraceful."
McQuillan said he will push for an expansion of training requirements for new teachers, possibly including a licensing test on reading instruction. "Nationwide, there is a large number of teachers not prepared well enough to teach beginning reading," he said.
At the University of Connecticut, prospective teachers undergo five years of training, and many already take three or four courses in reading, said Douglas Hartman, a professor in UConn's Neag School of Education. "We share the commissioner's concern about reading performance," he said. "We see increasing the number of [reading] courses as a positive step."
Among those who have called for better training of teachers is Elaine Zimmerman, executive director of the state Commission on Children. "I'm very disappointed" in the latest scores, she said. She contended, however, that many teachers do not know or have not followed proven techniques for teaching reading and that the state should do more to ensure better reading instruction.
"There has been no accountability," she said. "Nobody goes into schools and says, `Are you doing this?'"
Nevertheless, she said she believed McQuillan, who took over as commissioner in April, has shown "a much deeper commitment to reading and accountability."
McQuillan will have new tools to tackle the problem under a recent state law that expands his department's authority to step into troubled school districts. Under that law, the state can order steps such as full-day kindergarten, summer school, tutoring or longer school days and school years. In the most serious cases, the state could order the transfer of principals and teachers or even take control of schools.
Some school systems already have begun taking steps to overhaul low-performing schools. In Hartford, Superintendent of Schools Steven J. Adamowski announced plans this week for a complete redesign of four schools, the first step in a sweeping shake-up of the district. Hartford's scores were again among the lowest in the state. Only 13 percent of the city's third-graders, for example, met the state goal in reading.
McQuillan singled out two school districts - New Haven and Meriden - for making encouraging progress. Although scores in those districts still were below state averages, students made significant gains since last year.
One school that made unusually large gains was Conte-West Hills School in New Haven, where 40 percent of third-graders met the state reading goal, up from 32 percent last year. In addition, the school's third-graders beat the state averages in mathematics and writing, with 60 percent meeting the math goal and 66 percent meeting the writing goal.
The school tests students regularly, analyzes data and monitors classes closely, said Conte-West Hills Principal Cheryl Brown. "Success is by design," she said, crediting a "laser-like focus on student achievement at all times."
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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