Scores on the Connecticut Mastery Test dipped slightly across all grade levels in reading, mathematics, writing and science in 2013, the final year that the traditional standardized exam will be administered to all schools.
Results released Tuesday also showed a widening achievement gap between students learning English and those who know the language. About 242,600 public school students in grades 3 to 8 took the mastery exam in March.
However, state Education Commissioner Stefan Pryor noted pockets of improvement at some schools that historically have struggled, and pointed out small and steady gains on the Connecticut Academic Performance Test, an exam for 10th graders. CAPT results were also released Tuesday.
Still, Pryor said, "it remains clear that major work lies ahead to ensure that each student is prepared for success in college and career."
The scores come as districts shift classroom instruction to the new Common Core State Standards and prepare for a tougher exam, a test of students' analytical skills, that education officials say will replace the mastery test and CAPT by 2015. Districts can opt for the computerized test called Smarter Balanced as soon as 2014.
Pryor said Tuesday that curriculum based on the Common Core is "out of synch" with the current mastery exam, and that he has already heard from superintendents who have noticed drops in scores in grade levels where their districts began the transition last school year. In third-grade math, for example, Common Core standards emphasize the teaching of fewer principles, but in greater depth.
"There are topics that are not taught that remain in the CMT," Pryor said.
Pryor also highlighted several positive trends in the state's low-performing "alliance" districts -- New Britain had "quite impressive" improvement, he said -- as well as the Commissioner's Network and charter schools.
All are part of a bigger investment that the state has made to address Connecticut's long-term achievement gap, which continues to persist among African Americans, Latinos and low-income students performing well below their white and wealthier peers.
The General Assembly has committed $355 million in new funding over the next two years to support school systems and reform initiatives, such as a teacher evaluation system.
In New Britain, scores declined on the CAPT, but the district posted gains across all grade levels and subjects on the mastery exam, earning heavy praise from the state.
In reading, 26.8 percent of third-graders met the "goal," outscoring East Hartford and Bridgeport. School officials said that New Britain third-graders had previously ranked at the bottom.
Superintendent Kelt Cooper has instituted a series of "back to basics" reforms since he was hired last year, such as eliminating the weekly staff development afternoons that sent thousands of students home early every Thursday while their teachers discussed instructional strategies.
"We're pushing the kids along; they're not just being stagnant," Cooper said. "We're aware that our scores are not even remotely where we need to be, but in one short year, we are happy to see these kinds of results."
Suburban districts such as Glastonbury, Avon and Farmington continued to perform well above the average state scores.
Statewide, the biggest decline on the mastery exam was in third-grade math: 82.7 percent of students met the "proficient" benchmark, a drop of 3 percentage points from 2012.
Third-graders reaching the state's "goal," the mastery level of achievement, fell 5 percentage points to 61.6 percent.
When analyzing cohorts, or specific groups of students as they move from year to year, a bright spot emerges in reading. Sixth-graders achieving mastery hit 73.3 percent this year, a gain of nearly 6 percentage points compared to their reading scores as fifth-graders in 2012.
Similarly, 78.9 percent of this year's seventh-graders reached mastery, up from 74.2 percent of the 2012 sixth-graders. In 2006, the baseline year of the mastery exam, 66.7 percent of Connecticut seventh-graders met the goal, according to state data.
The state's fourth- and fifth-grade cohorts also showed a trend of improvement in reading.
For students identified as English Language Learners, however, the achievement gap widened in most cases, Pryor said.
In eighth-grade math, for example, 8.2 percent of ELL students reached mastery, while 67 percent of their non-ELL peers did. Last year, 12.3 percent of ELL eighth-graders achieved the math goal.
The state also reported mixed results in raising scores among Latinos, African Americans and low-income students.
On the CAPT, administered to roughly 42,000 of the state's high school sophomores, students made slight gains on all subjects except for writing, where performance was largely flat. About 62 percent of students reached the writing goal, down 1 percentage point from 2012.
The percentage of 10th-graders achieving the math goal rose from 49.3 percent to 52.6 percent over the past year.
But in Bridgeport, only 11.3 percent of test-takers met the CAPT math goal, a 1 percentage point increase over 2012. When it came to math "proficiency," Bridgeport scores declined slightly to 35.5 percent, a wide gap from the state average of 78.6 percent.
Windham scores dropped across all CAPT subjects, including a decline of 8 percentage points in math proficiency, to 33.1 percent. Sophomores achieving the math goal fell from 20.8 percent to 13.7 percent in one year.
In 2011, the state intervened in the troubled Windham district, a blue-collar community in eastern Connecticut that includes the city of Willimantic, and appointed a special master to reverse the declining academic performance.
New London received the same special master, Steven Adamowski, in 2012 to oversee the district at a salary of $225,000. On Tuesday, Pryor said he was "pleased and proud" to see some gains in New London this year, including improvements in the middle grades.
Pryor also emphasized "bright spots" in Bloomfield, where the percentage of third-graders reading at goal jumped to 65 percent, and at four low-performing schools that entered the state's Commissioner's Network last summer with plans to turn around achievement.
In agreeing to state intervention, Hartford's Milner Elementary School, New Haven's High School in the Community, Stanton School in Norwich and Bridgeport's Curiale School received an infusion of funds and extra academic support.
At Milner, which is now managed by the Jumoke Academy charter school, the percentage of eighth-graders who scored proficient in reading improved from 38.7 percent to 60 percent in one year. Overall, Milner received about $1.8 million in extra funds to support its turnaround plan in 2012-13, including the hiring of 20 new classroom aides. Much of that funding came from the state.
For third-grade reading, however, no Milner students achieved mastery and 11.1 percent tested as proficient, according to state data.
In Hartford, where Superintendent Christina Kishimoto has made early literacy a focus of her administration, 31.6 percent of city third-graders met the state's goal in reading, down a percentage point from last year.
This year, educators waited longer than usual to receive the high-stakes results that amount to report cards for districts, schools and teachers. The state typically releases the mastery and CAPT scores in July, but there was a delay because the state hired an external auditor to independently verify the 2013 results.
The state also announced Tuesday that calculation errors were discovered in its School Performance Index, a ranking used to compare and assess districts and schools. The errors, from 2012 data, are being corrected.
In 2014, Connecticut will begin transitioning to a new computer-based exam that is aligned with the rigorous Common Core standards for English language arts and math that will be rolled out statewide in the 2013-14 school year.
At least 20 percent of Connecticut students next year will take the interactive test developed by the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium, Pryor said. The exam includes a greater focus on critical thinking, and it adapts to each test-taker -- questions vary depending on whether a student answered previous questions right or wrong.
Districts may choose whether to try out the new exam, or stick with the CMT and CAPT assessments for 2014, or do both. For that transitional year, the state is asking the U.S. Department of Education to allow school districts to delay the inclusion of test scores in teacher evaluations.
In 2014-15, all Connecticut school districts are expected to switch to the Smarter Balanced test, although the science portions of the CMT and CAPT will continue to be administered.
Gov. Dannel P. Malloy recently announced a $10 million competitive technology grant for districts to buy new computers and increase their schools' Internet bandwidth in preparation for the Common Core and new testing. Educators have expressed concern that their school technology won't be up to par.
But there is another worry. In New York, one of the first states to administer a new standardized exam aligned with the Common Core, the percentage of students considered proficient in reading and math plummeted this year.
Kishimoto has warned that Hartford and other Connecticut districts will need to tamp down public expectations for that "baseline" year of Smarter Balanced scores.
"The expectation is that with the more rigorous and more challenging content of the Smarter Balanced exams, scores will initially drop," said Pryor, who plans to meet with superintendents Wednesday. "The Common Core presents great opportunity for our state because the bar has been raised."
The disparity in test scores among ethnic groups continues in Connecticut. Grade 4 reading, students scoring at or above goal.
Black: 37 percent
Hispanic: 37.7 percent
White: 74.5 percent
Income A Factor
As reflected in Grade 4 reading scores, fewer students eligible for free or reduced cost meals scored at or above goal.
Eligible: 38.7 percent
Not eligible: 76.3 percent
For a look at test scores in cities and towns across the state, see Page B8.
Visit courant.com/2013 scores for a database of test scores searchable by school district, subject, grade and year.
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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