HARTFORD — - Statewide test scores show that elementary and middle school students made solid gains and that the state may be starting to close a yawning achievement gap that has left minority and poor students behind.
But 10th-graders statewide slipped in most subjectsin the Connecticut Academic Performance Test, prompting state Education Commissioner Mark K. McQuillan to renew his call for high school curriculum reform.
The standardized tests are given in March to 250,000 public school students in grades 3 through 8 and Grade 10 to assess their mastery of math, reading, writing and science skills. Parents will get individual test scores for their children from their schools in September.
The statewide average showed that students in grades 3 through 8 taking the Connecticut Mastery Test improved about 10 points in reaching math and reading goals, and rose just over 5 points in writing.
Black and Hispanic students' test scores rose at a higher rate than those of white students, though they still trail about 30 points behind white students in all four content areas.
"For the first time in quite some memory, we are seeing the beginning to close the achievement gap in grades 5 and 8 proficiency in math and reading," McQuillan said.
The scores show that many urban areas have made strides. The 15 school districts the state has identified as low-achieving — including Hartford, East Hartford, New Britain and Middletown — posted gains on the mastery test this year after putting a laser-like focus on improving instruction and teaching strategies.
Hartford's scores improved for a second year, with the numbers rising 2.7 percent districtwide. Students' reading scores went up in every grade, including 7.1 percent for seventh grade.
The Connecticut Coalition for Achievement Now, an advocacy group for education reform known as ConnCAN, praised Hartford's progress as a bright spot in the state. The capital city's school district, which had been one of the lowest-performing in the state, has increased mastery test scores 4.2 percent in studies that track classes as they progress through the school, said Marc Porter Magee, ConnCAN's chief operating officer.
"If they kept making gains like that, within 10 years they would erase the achievement gap," Magee said.
In the past two years, Hartford has opened a number of new schools, creating smaller, theme-oriented facilities that encourage parental choice, he said. Officials also have given the schools more autonomy and have shrunk the central office staff, giving the cost savings to school sites, Magee said.
The Capitol Region Education Council's 11 magnet schools in Greater Hartford saw a 3 percent increase in both math and reading scores, with the Metropolitan Learning Center in Bloomfield and the University of Hartford Magnet School in West Hartford making double-digit gains in many areas.
New Haven made unprecedented gains in reading, improving at every level, which district leaders attribute, in part, to an emphasis on training teachers and administrators to better use data to make decisions in the classroom.
Still, huge disparities remain. In New Britain and New London, for example, only 16 percent of students reached their third-grade reading goal. Statewide, only 18.2 percent of black 10th-graders and 20.5 percent of Hispanic 10th-graders reached their reading goals.
In West Hartford, Superintendent Karen List said the town's mastery test scores are "the highest they've ever been," with growth in math across all grade levels and overall improvement in reading. That was a result, she said, of deliberate district planning that includes early intervention teachers and more on-the-spot assessments of students to gauge their learning and modify instruction.
But, like other Connecticut 10th-graders, West Hartford sophomores dipped when it came to science. Sixty-one percent met the goal, a drop of 3 percentage points from last year, though still above the state average of 43 percent.
"I don't have an explanation for that," List said. Principals will "be meeting with their faculties, they'll do a school-based … classroom-based, student-based analysis. We dig all the way down."
Statewide, 10th-grade scores were down slightly in all areas but reading: 48 percent of students met the goal in mathematics, 43 percent in science, 47.5 percent in reading and 55.1 percent in writing.
McQuillan admitted that the statistic is alarming. He noted that No Child Left Behind reforms have focused mainly on kindergarten through Grade 8, and that the Obama administration recognizes the country now needs to turn its attention to high school education.
McQuillan has developed a plan to reform secondary level curriculum to include, among other things, tougher statewide high school graduation requirements. He submitted the legislation to the General Assembly in January, but the legislature did not approve it, saying it fell in the category of unfunded mandates, McQuillan said. The plan would start out costing about $8 million in its first year and would build to $30 million over several years, he said.
Statewide test scores also show that girls outscored boys in all subjects in eighth grade, particularly in writing, where there is a 16.6 percentage point difference. By the 10th grade, boys outscored girls in math and science while girls outperformed boys in reading and writing.
The scores also revealed that students who do not speak English as their primary language scored substantially lower than their peers, making them the lowest performing subgroup.
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at