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Urban Schools Make Gains In Test Scores

Over 5 Years, Gap Shrinks Between Poor And Middle-Class Regular Education Pupils

March 29, 2005
By ROBERT A. FRAHM, Courant Staff Writer

In the state's most troubled urban schools, English-speaking children in regular classes have made encouraging progress in reading, writing and mathematics over the past five years, according to test scores released Monday.

Among those children, schools in Connecticut's poorest cities and towns made greater gains on the annual Connecticut Mastery Test than did schools elsewhere in the state, officials said.

Although urban students, including large numbers of low-income minority children, continue to lag far behind white middle-class children on the test, the latest results represent at least some progress in closing the gap.

"I was delighted to see those numbers," said state Education Commissioner Betty J. Sternberg, who has called the achievement gap the state's most pressing educational problem.

"I'm encouraged," she said. "We have to continue to press on."

The five-year trend suggests that millions of dollars in state support for the state's neediest schools in recent years - including money for reading programs and preschool classes - appears to be having an effect, Sternberg said.

The gains on the test of fourth-, sixth- and eighth-graders, however, do not reflect results of special education students or children with limited English-speaking ability - groups that make up large portions of enrollments in many of the state's urban schools.

State officials say the performance of those students is more difficult to judge because of changing rules under the federal No Child Left Behind Act. The law has required the testing of thousands of additional special education students and non-English-speaking children on recent tests, making it impossible to draw comparisons between the latest scores and previous results, Sternberg said.

No Child Left Behind calls for an expansion of testing and is aimed at closing the achievement gap for low-performing groups of children, such as those with disabilities or with limited English-speaking skills.

When the increasing numbers of those children are factored into the latest statewide scores, there is no clear-cut pattern of either better or worse performance during the five years of the current version of the mastery test, officials said. Because many more special education students and non-English-speaking children now are being tested, some urban schools, such as those in Hartford, show an overall decline in performance when those scores are counted.

As a result, even with the improvement among those who are not in special education or English language training programs, most schools in the state's poorest cities are not on a pace to meet the strict progress demanded under No Child Left Behind, the 3-year-old federal school reform law.

Still, test results in seven high-poverty school systems - Hartford, Bridgeport, New Haven, New Britain, New London, Waterbury and Windham - showed promising growth in proficiency levels among English-speaking students in regular programs, especially in sixth and eighth grade.

The proficiency standard is lower than the state goal but is used for measuring progress under the No Child Left Behind Act. At the more difficult state goal level, 59 percent of the state's fourth-graders, 68 percent of sixth-graders and 72 percent of eighth-graders met the standard in reading, not counting special education students or children with limited English-speaking ability. Similarly, in mathematics, 63 percent of fourth-graders, 68 percent of sixth-graders and 62 percent of eighth-graders met the goal.

In analyzing the proficiency standard among children who are not in special education or English language training programs, the state found:

About 53 percent of sixth-graders in the seven poorest towns scored at or above the proficiency level in reading, a five-year gain of about 7 percentage points. In the rest of the state, 86 percent of students scored at the proficiency level or better, a five-year gain of slightly more than 1 percentage point.

In eighth grade, 53 percent of students in the seven towns were judged proficient or better in mathematics, a 9 percentage point increase over the five-year period. Elsewhere in the state, 88 percent were judged proficient, a 1 percentage point increase in five years.

In other towns, 87 percent of eighth-graders scored at or above the proficiency level in reading, less than a 1 percentage point increase over five years, but in the seven poorest towns, 56 percent were proficient or better, an 8 percentage point gain.

"That's great. ... It's exciting to hear that," said Kathleen Greider, principal at Hartford's Dwight School, one of the top-scoring elementary schools in the city. She said city schools have begun focusing more attention on matters such as teacher training, preschool classes and academic standards.

Nevertheless, when special education students and children learning to speak English are counted in the results, Dwight's scores are down slightly in reading and mathematics.

Since the mastery test was introduced two decades ago, Connecticut has focused increasing attention on urban schools in an effort to close the achievement gap. The state, for example, will spend $46 million on preschool classes in the state's neediest towns this year, up from $10 million annually when the state-sponsored preschool program was started eight years ago.

"We have plenty of [pre-kindergarten programs] now. There's no reason why a child 4 years old can't get into a pre-K," said Deborah Howell, a veteran mathematics teacher at Rotella Magnet School in Waterbury.

Howell said she was encouraged by the latest results.

"I'm very impressed with what's happened," she said. "Here in Waterbury, we have a pretty well-defined curriculum that goes along with state objectives. ... I'm looking forward to even more improvement next year."

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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