Connecticut's fourth-graders remain well above average on a national achievement
test but can no longer claim to be the nation's best readers.
That honor goes to schoolchildren
in Massachusetts, where public schools posted the highest scores
in both reading and mathematics in results released Wednesday
on a nationwide test of fourth- and eighth-graders.
While test scores across the United States improved since 2003, Connecticut
lost ground in the proportion of fourth-graders deemed proficient in reading
on the National Assessment of Educational Progress, also known as the Nation's
That follows a similar decline between
2000 and 2004 on the Connecticut Mastery Test in fourth-grade
reading - "the one area we've seen turn in the wrong direction," said
state Education Commissioner Betty J. Sternberg. "It raises
a red flag for me."
Sternberg also worried about figures
showing that Connecticut has made only limited progress helping
its most disadvantaged students close a stubborn achievement
On the national test, low-income
and minority students in the state made some gains over the past
decade, especially at fourth grade, but still lagged far behind
their white and middle-class classmates.
The gap "is big, and it has
stayed big," Sternberg said.
Sternberg said the latest test results
underscore the need for reforms such as an expansion of preschool
classes in the state's neediest school districts, better curriculum
and testing, and a longer school day and school year.
Here are some of the findings:
In mathematics, average scores across
the United States rose to their highest level in 15 years for
fourth- and eighth-graders.
Reading scores for fourth-graders
nationwide improved slightly, but the gains are less dramatic
than in mathematics. At eighth grade, reading scores declined
since 2003. No states had higher average eighth-grade scores
in reading than in 2003.
Although they still lagged behind
white students, black and Hispanic fourth-graders posted larger
gains in reading scores than other groups.
The report "confirms ... we
are on the right track, especially with our younger students," said
U.S. Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings.
Spellings has been a strong advocate
for the No Child Left Behind Act, the centerpiece of President
Bush's education reform strategy. The law calls for a broad expansion
of testing and a shake-up of schools that fail to make sufficient
progress with all students, including low-income children, special
education students and members of minority groups.
However, many of those reforms,
including new reading programs, are aimed at children as young
as kindergartners and may not have had much impact on the latest
test of fourth- and eighth-graders.
Although the latest test showed
some gains, only about one-third of the nation's fourth- and
eighth-graders were judged proficient or better in reading or
The test separates scores into four
categories: below basic, basic, proficient and advanced.
The proficiency standard on the
national test is much tougher than that of many state tests,
including the annual Connecticut Mastery Test. On the most recent
Connecticut test, for example, 67 percent of fourth-graders met
the reading proficiency standard, compared with just 39 percent
who met or exceeded the national reading standard.
Two years ago, 43 percent of the
state's fourth-graders met or exceeded the national proficiency
mark, putting Connecticut in a virtual statistical tie with Massachusetts,
New Hampshire and New Jersey for the highest proportion of students
meeting that reading standard.
This year, Connecticut performed
as well or better than all other states in fourth-grade reading
except for Massachusetts, where 44 percent of fourth-graders
were deemed proficient or better.
Although Massachusetts excluded
a larger proportion of students from testing than Connecticut
did, "they clearly have pulled out in the lead," Sternberg
said. "I do wonder what it is they're doing."
Heidi Perlman, a spokeswoman for
the Massachusetts Department of Education, attributed the state's
performance to a set of education reforms passed in 1993, including "an
unprecedented financial commitment [to schools] and the development
of a high-stakes assessment system."
"It has led to a tremendous
push in our schools from the bottom up," she said.
The Massachusetts Comprehensive
Assessment System includes a 10th-grade test that students must
pass before graduation. Connecticut also has a 10th-grade test
but has not made passing the test mandatory for graduation.
As expected, Wednesday's results
fueled a debate over the best way to help low-performing students.
FairTest, a Boston-based group that
has been critical of high-stakes testing programs, including
the No Child Left Behind Act, said the latest scores "show
that high-stakes, punitive testing does not produce meaningful
The federal law was enacted in 2002,
but reading scores for black and Hispanic children have been
relatively flat since then, while math gains for those groups
have tapered off after showing gains during the 1990s, FairTest
However, Kati Haycock, director
of Education Trust, a Washington, D.C., advocacy group, said
the federal law "serves an important function by shining
a bright spotlight on how all students are performing academically."
Education Trust said that although
the gap between minority and white students is narrowing, large
gaps persist in too many states, citing Massachusetts and Connecticut
Despite its high scores, Massachusetts
has among the biggest Latino-white reading gaps in the country
while Connecticut has among the largest gaps in achievement between
poor students and their more affluent peers in reading and math
at both fourth and eighth grade, the group said.
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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