High school sophomores across Connecticut showed gains in writing, math and science performance on the state's annual standardized test, but few districts improved as much as Canton, whose 10th-graders now rank among the top in the state.
Canton High School Principal Gary Gula has a few theories about why. The students who took the 2008 Connecticut Academic Performance Test were part of an academically strong class. A new science curriculum helped, as did a schoolwide focus on bringing up test scores.
But Gula is also certain the school's dramatic gains reflect a simple strategy: Instead of cramming all nine tests into five days, as the school did in the past, nine days were allotted for testing, allowing students to take one exam each day, then spend the rest of the day in class.
"That really paid great dividends in our students," he said
The change particularly helped special-education students, some of whom take tests with unlimited or extended time and might have spent hours taking multiple exams on one day in the past.
In Canton, the performance of special-education students rose this year, Gula said. Overall, the percentage of students reaching state goals rose by double-digit numbers in every subject.
"It was a much better testing environment," Gula said.
Canton's gains may have been unusual, but they reflected an overall boost in student performance on the 2008 exam.
Statewide, just over half of high school sophomores reached state goals in math this year, a 4.9 percentage-point increase from 2007. Writing performance was up 4.8 percentage points, with 57.8 percent of 10th-graders reaching state goals.
In science, 46.5 percent of students reached state goals, a 2 percentage-point increase, while 45.5 percent of students achieved goals in reading, the same as 2007.
State Education Commissioner Mark K. McQuillan described the results as promising, but acknowledged that challenges remain, including persistent lags in the performance of black and Hispanic students and students who are not native English speakers.
"We still have far to go, but this is a step forward for our state," McQuillan said in a written statement.
White, black and Hispanic students all showed gains in math, science and writing. But gaps remain.
While 63.1 percent of white students achieved state goals on the math exam, for example, only 14.6 percent of black students and 18.2 percent of Hispanic students did.
Overall, the percentage of students at the test's lowest levels decreased and more students achieved proficiency — a level below state goals. McQuillan said the increase in proficiency signaled improvements among low-performing students.
The portion of black and Hispanic students achieving proficiency increased enough to narrow racial gaps at that level.
Many of the state's poorest school districts remained among the lowest-performing in the state, but several showed gains, particularly in students achieving proficiency.
Hartford Superintendent of Schools Steven J. Adamowski said his district "turned an important corner," posting gains in test performance for the first time since 2001.
"For the first time we can say that Hartford, because of our size, contributed to the overall progress of the state rather than being a drain on it as we have in the past," he said.
New Haven schools also showed improvements, particularly among the percentage of students achieving proficiency.
In some schools, the rate of students achieving proficiency rose by more than 10 percentage points.
The portion of students reaching goals remained among the lowest in the state, but still increased over 2007.
McQuillan and other school officials attributed state gains to several strategies, including professional development for teachers, the increasing use of assessments and data to determine how students are learning and what teaching methods work, and curriculum changes designed to help students achieve specific standards.
This year's test results came out amid increased focus on high schools by state education officials, who have proposed an ambitious plan to reshape secondary school education.
The proposal, which must be approved by the legislature, is intended to address concerns that students are graduating unprepared for college and the workforce.
Proposed changes include increasing the number of credits and specific courses required for graduation. Students would have to pass end-of-course exams and complete independent projects.
Hartford has already embraced similar changes — graduation requirements will increase for this fall's freshmen — and the Connecticut Technical High School system has also implemented reforms. McQuillan cited CAPT performance improvements by both school systems as an indication that reforms can boost student performance.
Some districts that posted some of the largest gains are also using strategies similar to those McQuillan hopes will become statewide.
At Bolton High School, 90.8 percent of 10th-graders met state goals for writing, the third-highest rate in the state and a 13 percentage-point increase over 2007.
The focus on writing, which includes extra help for students who show weakness on sample tests, extends beyond traditional subjects like English and social studies, Principal Paul K. Smith said. Students may practice CAPT-type essays in music, art, even physical education.
The school also requires students to meet seven academic standards to graduate, a concept similar to the state's reform proposal.
Four of Bolton's standards can be met through CAPT performance, and students take the test seriously, Smith said.
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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