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Results Mixed On Connecticut Mastery Test

By ARIELLE LEVIN BECKER | Courant Staff Writer

July 18, 2008

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No one knew exactly what to expect when the state began testing fifth- and eighth-graders in science this spring, part of the annual standardized tests already given in math, reading and writing.

But Columbia Superintendent of Schools Richard Saddlemire was feeling confident. In many districts, elementary school teachers, whose training often did not emphasize science, needed help to become confident teaching the subject. In Columbia, though, fifth-graders go to the middle school, where they learn from teachers certified in science.

"In a way we had looked forward to the science testing," Saddlemire said. "We'd always had confidence in our science program and this was the first time it was going to be measured."

The results of the Connecticut Mastery Test, released early today, didn't disappoint. While science performance in many districts fell below or was even with performance in the other three subjects, Columbia was one of a handful of districts where pupils achieved state goals in science at a higher rate than in any other subject.

Overall results were mixed on the exams, which third- through eighth-graders take each spring.

Statewide, the percentage of students achieving state goals on math rose in all grades except fourth. In writing, a greater percentage of students achieved state goals in third and seventh grades, but performance stayed flat for fifth-graders and fell among fourth-, sixth- and eighth-graders.

Results were also mixed on reading, an area of particular concern among educators. Performance improved in 2008 among fifth-, sixth- and seventh-graders, but fell among third-, fourth- and eighth-graders.

State Education Commissioner Mark K. McQuillan characterized the results as "uneven improvement," and expressed concern at the drop in reading performance.

McQuillan also expressed concern about the state's persistent achievement gaps and lagging performance by black, Hispanic and native American pupils, students in special education, children from poor families and pupils who are not native English speakers.

"There are bright spots and there are some areas of disappointment in our 2008 CMT scores," he said in a written statement. The racial gaps narrowed somewhat in math, reading for students from fifth to seventh grade, and writing for third-graders.

The science tests are mandated under the federal No Child Left Behind act. Their addition also reflected concerns that not enough young people are pursuing careers in science and worries that with standardized tests focused on language arts and math, science was getting squeezed out of classroom time.

The science test reflected a new state model developed in 2004, which emphasized the ability to understand science and scientific methods, instead of just memorizing facts.

Elizabeth Buttner, a science consultant for the state Department of Education, called the test results a "great beginning," and described them as baseline figures that will help measure future scores.

Adding a science test ensured that science got classroom focus, Buttner said. "I hope we can maintain momentum," she said.

In Wallingford, a longtime focus on hands-on science education seems to have paid off; a greater percentage of eighth-graders reached state goals in science than any other subject.

The district has a science resource center, which provides elementary school teachers with kits of hands-on material students can use during experiments. When one class is done with them, teachers send them back to the resource center for re-use.

Officials also worked with teachers on science education and on incorporating language and other skills into their science lessons, said Sally Dastoli, Wallingford's science resource teacher.

In many districts that made gains, officials cited data-based decision making, which typically involves assessing students, then using the results to adjust teaching methods to better reach students.

In Colchester, the concept has become so important that teachers who don't work during the summer have been coming in recently to examine the test scores so they can make plans for the next school year, Superintendent of Schools Karen A. Loiselle said.

For Colchester, the mastery test data was encouraging; the percentage of students reaching state goals this year rose in 16 of the 18 categories measured on the exam in both 2007 and 2008.

The district's strongest gains came in middle school reading, which Loiselle attributed to establishing a "culture of reading" in the elementary and middle schools.

In the middle school, for example, every pupil is required to have a book at all times; they may start reading if they finish other work early, she said.

Nearly all of the state's poorest school districts posted gains in the percentage of students reaching state goals on many of the tests, though they remained among the lowest-performing in the state. In New Haven and New Britain, a greater percentage of students reached goals this year on 11 of the 18 exams.

In Hartford, performance rose on 13 of the exams, including an 8.2 percentage-point increase in seventh-graders reaching goals in reading, a 7.1 percentage-point increase in sixth-graders reaching writing goals, and a 5.9 percentage-point increase in fourth-graders achieving math goals.

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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