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Mastery Test Results Show Some Narrowing Of Achievement Gap


July 19, 2012

The state's high-stakes standardized test scores, released Thursday afternoon, show incremental improvement for elementary school students, mixed results for high school students and a slight narrowing of the state's yawning achievement gap between low- and higher-income students.

Despite some improvement, the tests continue to show a massive disparity in achievement in Connecticut, with more than twice the percentage of higher-income students performing at or above the "goal" level compared to lower-income students in many grade levels and subject areas.

The test scores also showed a widening of the gap between students who speak English and those who are learning to speak it.

"Overall, there are signs of growth, evidence of progress," said Education Commissioner Stefan Pryor. "There's a lot to build upon. The system is headed in the right direction."

But, he added, "We need to accelerate."

He noted that schools are moving more students into proficient- and goal-level performance, but that "significant gaps in achievement continue between economically disadvantaged students and their peers."

Patrick Riccards, CEO of the Connecticut Coalition for Achievement, a non-profit New Haven-based group, said the scores "provide us reason for cautious optimism. Looking at the numbers, we're seeing positive trends, particularly if we look over the five-year trajectory, but at the same time, we are still looking at just awful achievement gaps."

About 250,000 students in third through eighth grades took the Connecticut Mastery Test this spring. They showed the most consistent improvements in reading and writing, and, while student performance in math improved in the earlier grades, it declined slightly among older children.

The percentage of third-graders, for instance, who performed at or above the state's "goal" level on the mathematics tests went from 63.2 percent last year to 66.8 percent this year, while sixth-graders who performed at or above goal slipped from 71.6 percent to 69.5 percent.

The more than 40,000 tenth-graders who took the Connecticut Academic Performance Test scored slightly better in writing compared to last year but declined in mathematics and remained about flat in science and reading.

The state analyzed the data in two ways, arriving at differing assessments of Connecticut's largest-in-the-nation achievement gap between lower- and higher-income students.

When the state Department of Education examined the percentage of students who performed at or above the "proficient" or the higher "goal" level, officials said it showed that the gap between low- and higher-income students had narrowed since 2006 at nearly every grade level and subject area.

For instance, 58.1 percent of third-graders who are eligible for a free or reduced-price lunch the indicator used by the state to identify low-income students scored at or above the proficiency level in 2006 in mathematics. That percentage increased by almost 14 percentage points to 71.6 percent in 2012. Over the same six-year span, the percentage of students who aren't low-income and scored at or above proficiency rose 7 points to 94.1 percent.

So the achievement gap narrowed, but still a significant gap remains. And while nearly 80 percent of those higher-income third-graders scored at the higher "goal" level in mathematics in 2012, only 44 percent of the lower-income students did.

A huge achievement gap also continues to persist in Connecticut between city and suburban students. In Hartford and Bridgeport, about a third of eighth-graders scored at or above the goal level in math, but in Avon it was 91.5 percent, and in Farmington it was 90.9 percent.

In its second analysis, the state tracked the growth of essentially the same cohort of students as they progressed from grade to grade. Analyzed that way, the data showed the gap between higher- and lower-income students closing modestly in reading but widening in math.

"I think the conclusion is that we are making progress but not enough," Pryor said. "The gap remains too large. We need to redouble our efforts."

Test results are closely watched as a bellwether of a city's or town's reputation and property value, and soon teachers' performance evaluations will take their students' scores into account.

The widening of the gap in achievement between students who speak English and those who are learning the language is particularly marked. From last year to this year, the percentage of students learning English who are at or above proficiency declined or stayed the same in most subject areas in the third and eighth grades, while among English speakers, the percentage at or above the proficiency level increased in every subject area compared with the previous year.

White students continue to outperform black and Hispanic students at significant percentage rates, but state officials say it is difficult to say whether that gap is widening or narrowing because the definitions of various racial and ethnic groups changed about two years ago.

"As pertains to students of color, English language learners and students in poverty, we have a lot of work to do," Pryor said. "The performance of students remains much too low."

Joseph Cirasuolo, executive director of the Connecticut Association of Public School Superintendents, said the test results "demonstrate the need for transforming the system, if we are to achieve more than incremental progress."

Cirasuolo said the system needs to become "learner-centered, a system that allows each child to learn at the pace that is most appropriate for that child."

He said the reforms passed by the legislature this year "are an important first step towards a learner-centered system," but "much more needs to be done because we cannot be satisfied with just incremental progress."

The new executive director of the Connecticut Education Association applauded the gains on the CMT in several grades as a reflection of teachers' hard work but cautioned against overly relying on test scores as a measure of student growth or teacher effectiveness.

"Teacher-designed assignments that challenge students to expand their skills and knowledge give greater insight into the strengths of students as they develop over time," said Mark Waxenberg. "This approach fosters excitement and engagement in learning."

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.
| Last update: September 25, 2012 |
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