Poor and minority students improved their performance on the Connecticut Mastery Test slightly this year, with bigger gains in Hartford and New Haven, helping to narrow the state's academic achievement gap, the worst in the nation.
But they still lag at least 30 points behind their more affluent and white counterparts.
"It's very good news that there has been at least some movement toward narrowing of the achievement gap," said State Rep. Andrew Fleischmann, co-chairman of the legislature's education committee. "We still have a long way to go, but if you look back over the past several years, the fact is we had made very little progress until now."
One school reform advocate said the data showed progress, but not at an acceptable pace.
"I think overall, we saw some encouraging things happening in some of the large school districts, particularly Hartford and New Haven, but in many others they are not closing the gap," said Alex Johnston, executive director of CONNCan, a school reform advocacy group.
Overall, Connecticut students improved their scores in all subjects on the standardized test except for third-grade writing. The increases follow a general upward trend since 2006 when the test was reformulated.
The test is given annually to about 250,000 students in Grades 3 through 8 to test whether they have mastered skills and understanding in math, reading and writing. Students in Grades 5 and 8 also are tested in science. Parents will get a report this fall on each child's test results, and the scores will be used to revise instruction at each school and pinpoint areas that need to be addressed.
The biggest gains overall during the past five years have been in grades 6 and 7. Math scores for sixth graders increased by 12.4 percentage points among those who reached the state's goal level, while reading rose 11.3 percentage points. Seventh-grade math scores increased 11.8 percentage points and reading rose 10.8 percentage points. The goal level is the state's target for student performance.
Education Commissioner Mark K. McQuillan said he is pleased by the performance of all students and the gains by minority and economically disadvantaged students, but remains concerned about the achievement gap.
"While this shows positive movement, we should all be concerned with the 30 percentage point gaps in performance among racial and economic groups that persist. We need to do more to help all children succeed," McQuillan said.
In several areas, particularly at the middle school level, the scores of black and Hispanic students improved more dramatically than their white counterparts, though a stubborn gap remains between them.
The percentage of white eighth-graders who scored at the proficient level -- the level that distinguishes whether a school has made adequate yearly progress under federal law -- went from 86.6 percent to 90.5 percent over the course of five years in math, a 3.9-point increase.
During the same period, the percentage of black and Hispanic students at the proficient level rose from 51.6 percent to 62.8 percent, a 13.1-point increase. Despite the dramatic growth, minority groups still lag 27.7 percentage points behind.
There were similar trends along socio-economic lines. Wealthier eighth graders were 91.2 percent proficient in reading, a 5.3-point increase over five years ago. At the same time, poorer students improved by 12 percentage points to a 63.2 percent proficiency level. Still, 28 points separate the poor from the rich.
Gwen Samuel, chairwoman of The State of Black Connecticut Alliance, was not surprised by the results, particularly at a time when some school systems, such as West Haven's, are closing high-performing schools in poor neighborhoods.
"We're holding the line, but the achievement gap can be closed in Connecticut," she said.
Fleischmann attributed the improvements to a range of initiatives, including a requirement that struggling schools develop turnaround plans, and the Connecticut Accountability in Learning Initiative, which relies on data-driven decision-making to help teachers pinpoint students' needs.
"It takes a while to turn around large ships," Fleischmann said.
Samuel said she hopes that a school reform package the legislature passed this spring will help. One measure allows the formation of school governance councils that can recommend reorganizing underperforming schools.
The reforms, which took effect July 1, require a more rigorous high school curriculum, an improved school data system to track student progress, and eventually, linking teacher evaluations to student performance, among other measures.
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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