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Sophomores Sag Below Test Goals

Statewide Results In All Subjects Reverse Four-Year Upward Trend

September 1, 2006
By ROBERT A. FRAHM, Courant Staff Writer

High school sophomores across Connecticut broke a four-year upward trend on an annual achievement test when significantly more students fell short of state goals in reading, mathematics, writing and science.

The downturn in the percentage of 10th-graders meeting the state's goals on the Connecticut Academic Performance Test left educators searching for explanations. In results released Thursday, three out of four public school districts reported declines in all four subjects.

"I think it's a puzzle," said Daniel P. Sullivan, principal at New London High School, where the numbers were down sharply despite efforts such as regular Saturday test review classes. "It will be something we're looking at because we don't want it to happen again."

The results were announced the same week that officials reported a dip in scores on the SAT college entrance exam by last year's high school seniors in Connecticut and across the nation.

The 10th-grade CAPT has gained added significance in recent years because it is the standard on which the state's high schools are judged under President Bush's school accountability law, the No Child Left Behind Act.

Although he cautioned against reading too much into a one-year change in scores, interim state Education Commissioner George A. Coleman called this year's decline surprising.

"One of the most disturbing aspects is that this is Connecticut's test, the test that most correlates to our curriculum," he said. "For me to see a regression ... even among our top-performing students, that causes me some concern."

Despite the one-year decline, most high schools have shown improvement in scores over a five-year span even as more students have taken the exam. This year, about 95 percent of 10th-graders took the test, up from about 86 percent in 2001, when the current version of the test was first given.

Coleman said he was especially discouraged that black and Hispanic students still trail white and Asian students by wide margins, and have made little progress in closing the achievement gap since 2001.

He said that lends urgency to a state effort to reform high schools across Connecticut. A reform plan is expected to be ready for review by state officials this fall.

Only one school district in the state - Windsor - showed an increase over last year in all four subject areas in the percentage of students meeting state goals, while 93 districts showed decreases for all four subjects.

Joseph Arcarese, principal at Windsor High School, where sophomores made significant gains overall, said the school put a special emphasis on the exam, going into every sophomore English class to review the previous year's results. The school also sent literacy specialists into classrooms to work with individual students.

"I couldn't be more proud of a bunch of teachers in my life," Arcarese said.

One bright spot in Thursday's report was the continued improvement of the state's technical high school system, where schools have undergone major reforms and where students posted large gains for the second year in a row.

"That's wonderful, isn't it?" said Wendi Wight, a math teacher at Cheney Technical High School in Manchester, one of the state's 17 regional technical high schools.

Wight attributed the improvement to reforms such as better teacher training and a revamped curriculum that requires all students to take courses such as algebra and geometry. "They have a lot more rigor so the kids are getting more math at higher levels than previously," she said.

Many of the reforms, including extra teaching labs in math and English for freshmen and sophomores, started under Abigail Hughes, a controversial reform-minded superintendent who took over the troubled technical high schools system two years ago.

Hughes drew criticism from union leaders and teachers a year ago after imposing an aggressive reform agenda. Some were concerned about the rapid pace of change and complained that Hughes left them out of the process, but Wight said Hughes has been willing to make adjustments, when needed, in the original plan.

"I think teachers are starting to feel she is going to work with us to make our students the best they could be," she said.

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant. To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at http://www.courant.com/archives.
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