August 10, 2006
By ROBERT A. FRAHM, Courant Staff Writer
Hartford's troubled public schools, where a superintendent once vowed that students would "never be last again" in achievement scores, ranks last among the state's school districts in a wide range of test results released Wednesday.
The 24,000-student district was at or near the bottom of the list in reading, writing and mathematics in every grade tested earlier this year on the annual Connecticut Mastery Test. The test was given to third- through eighth-graders in school districts serving all of the state's 169 cities and towns..
City officials reported improvement in scores at some schools, but in the third, fourth and fifth grades, Hartford had the lowest proportion of children meeting the state goal in every category except third-grade writing. In grades 6 through 8, Hartford ranked among the bottom five districts in every category.
In reading, just 15 percent of Hartford's third-graders, who were tested for the first time under an expanded state testing program, met the state goal. Within that group, the figures ranged from as high as 32 percentat Batchelder and Hooker schools to a low of 2 percent at Milner School. The statewide average was 54 percent.
Hartford again was part of a familiar pattern of lagging achievement in the state's largest and poorest cities - a problem that state officials have attacked for years with only limited success. In the proportion of students meeting the state goal, Bridgeport, New Haven, New Britain and Windham were also ranked among the bottom 10 districts in every subject at every grade.
"It's heartbreaking. ... It just hurts me," said city council member Elizabeth Horton Sheff, a central figure in the long-running Sheff vs. O'Neill school desegregation case seeking to improve Hartford's schools.
The city's schools have undergone a turbulent year, with Mayor Eddie A. Perez taking over as school board chairman in December and Superintendent of Schools Robert Henry announcing two months later that he would resign at the end of the school year.
"Part of the reason I went on the board is that I didn't get the sense of urgency we need to have," Perez said Wednesday. "There is good teaching going on, but not enough of it, and not fast enough."
Henry had been superintendent since 2002, taking over after Anthony Amato resigned. It was the brash Amato who, after his appointment in 1999 in the midst of a state takeover of Hartford schools, issued the battle cry that on the statewide test the city would "never be last again."
The system climbed off the bottom rung the following year in an official ranking of school districts, but the state later discontinued issuing a formal ranking after complaints from a number of districts. An analysis of Wednesday's results shows that the city's schools again lag those in other struggling urban districts.
"The district has to take it seriously," Perez said. "We are so far behind that our rate of progress is not good enough because all the other districts are improving, too." He said there are some promising approaches, particularly at the city's magnet schools, "but they're not happening across the district."
Hartford's interim Superintendent of Schools, Jacqueline J. Jacoby, said that while the city continues to lag behind other districts, a preliminary analysis of the new test results shows bright spots, including increases in reading performance at about two-thirds of the city's schools.
"That's a good sign some things have been put into place that are beginning to work," she said.
Mathematics scores were disappointing, but a new math program introduced in early grades last year has not yet had enough time to have an effect, said Jacoby, who predicted the district would see a rise in math scores "in one or two more years."
Across the state, the mastery test - the state's chief benchmark of educational progress - showed discouraging levels of performance among minority students, low-income children and non-English speaking children. Those groups account for most students in cities such as Hartford and other urban centers.
In reading, for example, 74 percent of white children met the state goal, compared with 33 percent of black children and 31 percent of Hispanics. Among low-income children, 32 percent met the goal, compared with 74 percent of others.
Since the test was last given in the fall of 2004, the gaps between white and black students, whites and Hispanics, and poor and middle-class children widened slightly in most cases.
"It's not an easy issue to crack," outgoing state Education Commissioner Betty J. Sternberg said Wednesday. But she said more can be done by expanding preschool education, providing more health services, extending the school year, focusing on better testing and instruction, and attacking illiteracy.
"We've got teenage parents who themselves don't have the literacy skills they need," she said.
The achievement gap has been a high-profile national issue, largely because of attention created by the 2002 federal education reform law known as the No Child Left Behind Act. The law calls for a broad expansion of testing and requires schools to report the results of various groups, including racial and ethnic minorities.
As a result of that law, Connecticut doubled the size of its testing program, requiring all children in grades 3 through 8 to take the exam. In earlier years, the state tested only grades 4, 6 and 8.
Although closing the achievement gap is a daunting challenge, there has been some progress nationwide. In reading, for example, nearly two-thirds of the gap between black and white 17-year-olds on a national test disappeared between 1971 and 1988, said researcher Ronald Ferguson, director of Harvard University's Achievement Gap Initiative.
"These differences are not written in stone," he said. "They're just slow to disappear."
The effort to close the gap will require "high quality instruction, high quality parenting" and a focus on youth culture, including lifestyles and leisure reading patterns, he said.
"If we stick with this," he added, "we can make progress. It's going to take a couple generations."
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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