Urban schools begin to close the achievement gap

The lagging achievement of low-income and minority students in Connecticut’s cities remains a daunting problem, but that did not dampen the mood Thursday at a press conference announcing the latest test results in Hartford.

For the third year in a row, the city’s public schools – made up mainly of black and Hispanic children from low-income families – posted impressive gains on the annual Connecticut Mastery Test.

“This is year three. This is a trend,” Superintendent of Schools Steven Adamowski said to the cheers of a standing-room-only crowd of teachers, principals and parents at school district offices.

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Across the state, black, Hispanic and low-income students generally gained ground on the annual Connecticut Mastery Test, resulting in a slight narrowing of the large achievement gap separating them from their white and more affluent classmates.

Much of the improvement was the result of substantial gains in the state’s three largest and most impoverished school systems – Hartford, New Haven and Bridgeport.

The test of reading, writing and mathematics is given to all of the state’s public schoolchildren in grades three through eight. Black, Hispanic and low-income students also made gains on scores released today for the 10th-grade Connecticut Academic Performance Test. Their scores, however, also continued to lag far behind those of students from white and more affluent families.

The achievement gap affects schools across America and has been identified as a crisis by both the Bush and Obama administrations. On national tests, Connecticut has some of the largest gaps in the nation.

“When our reforms began in 2006, the gap was huge,” Adamowski said. “There was doubt as to whether it was possible to close the achievement gap in Connecticut and particularly in Hartford.  “That year we were the lowest-performing district in the state.

“We were the poster child for the achievement gap.”

Under Adamowski, the school system has redesigned many of the district’s schools, altering curriculum, creating smaller units within the city’s high schools, and developing distinctive specialty themes such as the arts, science or the classics in many schools. Several of the redesigned schools made substantial gains this year. Among them was America’s Choice at SAND, once the lowest-performing elementary school in the system.

Adamowski, Steven 7-16-10

Hartford superintendent Steven Adamowski: ‘This is a trend’ (Robert A. Frahm)

“We redesigned the school on a new model that focused kids on reading and writing more than ever,” said SAND Principal Desi Nesmith. That includes a 2½-hour daily “literacy block” and a longer school day, he said.

Across the city, progress has been encouraging since 2006, when the Mastery Test was last revised. In reading, for example, only 15 percent of Hartford’s third-graders met the state goal four years ago, but that figure increased to 27 percent this year. In math, 42 percent of sixth-graders met the state goal this year, up from 25 percent four years ago.

In New Haven, students also posted significant gains in several grades. In sixth grade, for example, 56 percent reached the goal in reading, up from 32 percent four years ago. In math, 50 percent of sixth-graders met the goal, up from 31 percent in 2006.

Similarly, in Bridgeport, 50 percent of sixth-graders met the state mathematics goal, compared with 30 percent four years earlier.

Despite the gains, the gaps remain large. In fifth-grade reading, for example, 32 percent of Hispanic students and 33 percent of black students met the state goal, compared with 74 percent of white fifth-graders.

“What we’re seeing again is the gravity of this gap,” said Alex Johnston of the school reform group ConnCAN. “We continue to have a terrible problem.”

Still, Johnston credited school reform movements, particularly in New Haven and Hartford, for pushing the scores upward. “It’s great to see that for the third year in a row Hartford has exceeded the state average” for student growth, he said.

“It’s really a big deal to be on this type of trajectory.”

That sentiment was shared by many of those who showed up to hear the Hartford results.

“What’s been going on the last three or four years is bearing fruit,” said Jim Starr, executive director of the school reform group Achieve Hartford.

And Milly Arciniegas, president of the Hartford Parent Organization Council, said, “I think it’s a great thing. . . .It takes all of us – the board, superintendent, principals, teachers, parents and students. . . . It’s a movement now.”

View interactive Mastery Test reports here, Academic Performance Test reports here, town-by-town lists here.