Budget-strapped schools confront persistent achievement gap

Low-income and minority students continued to lag on statewide achievement test results released this week, but financially-strapped public schools may have less help to attack the problem this year.

Many of the state’s public schools expect to lay off teachers, increase class sizes and scale back academic programs as they struggle with rising costs and tight budgets.

Because of a state budget crisis, the legislature also has delayed a series of high school reforms that had been passed last year.

All of this as the latest round of scores on the Connecticut Mastery Test showed modest overall improvement but also highlighted the chronic achievement gap affecting low-income, minority and non-English speaking students across the state.

“The disparity in student performance here in Connecticut has been an unrelenting problem that not only is evident from these latest CMT results, but also in every other standardized assessment that we report,” acting State Education Commissioner George Coleman said.

Coleman said, however, he is encouraged by the improving trend in reading, mathematics and writing scores since the current version of the Mastery Test was first given in 2006. About 250,000 children took the test last spring in grades three through eight. Children in grades five and eight also took a science test.

Among the results released Wednesday:

  • In mathematics, 67 percent of fourth-graders met the state goal in 2011, up from 59 percent in 2006. Similarly, 67 percent of eighth-graders met the state goal, up from 58 percent five years ago.
  • In reading, scores also showed a rising trend. Among sixth-graders, for example, 76 percent met the state goal, compared with 64 percent in 2006.
  • Writing scores remained mostly stable over the five-year span, with more than 60 percent of students meeting the state goal in all but seventh grade, where 59 percent met the goal.

However, the state’s efforts to expand help for groups such as low-income and minority students are on hold because of the fiscal crisis.

Officials at the State Department of Education had hoped for increases in funding to provide technical assistance to the state’s lowest performing school districts and to expand bilingual education programs, but those budgets remained flat, said Mark Linabury, a department spokesman.

The education department has lost numerous staffers in recent years, including consultants in science, English, mathematics, social studies and world languages.

Education officials are awaiting details on Gov. Dannell Malloy’s latest budget proposal, which is expected to reach the legislature by Friday. Among programs that could be in jeopardy are state-funded inter-district after-school and summer programs designed to promote academic achievement, Linabury said.

In addition, the recent decisions by the state to intervene in the troubled school districts in Windham and Bridgeport have spread the budget thin, Linabury said. “It compromises the bureau’s ability to serve the totality of needs,” he said.

On national tests, Connecticut has some of the largest achievement gaps among the 50 states, and this week’s state results show the same discouraging pattern. For example:

  • About one-third, or 34 percent, of black and Hispanic third-graders met the state reading goal on the Mastery Test, compared with 70 percent of white students.
  • On the eighth-grade mathematics test, 37 percent of black students and 39 percent of Hispanic students met the state goal, compared with 79 percent of white students.
  • On reading tests, 14 percent of children learning to speak English met the state goal, compared with 61 percent of English-speaking children.
  • Among low-income children, 41 percent met the state goal in mathematics, compared with 76 percent of their more affluent classmates.

Similar large performance gaps also were reported earlier this week on the Connecticut Academic Performance Test [CAPT] given to the state’s public school  10th-graders.

Nevertheless, some of the state’s lowest-performing districts have had to lay off teachers, curtail programs and increase class sizes. In Bridgeport, officials are uncertain what programs will remain intact under the recent state takeover, but average class sizes have increased from 25 students to 29, said Deborah Santacapita, director of evaluation and research for the city’s schools.

She said scores on the latest round of tests remained relatively flat.

Joseph Cirasuolo, executive director of the Connecticut Association of Public School Superintendents, said schools have seen a gradual increase in class size over the past two years and that state help for low-performing districts is likely to be limited.

He said that money is important, but that schools must undergo a fundamental restructuring in order to address the achievement gap. He said the superintendents’ group is developing a report that re-examines how schools structure grade levels and the pace of learning.

Students learn at different rates, and schools must adjust to accommodate them, Cirasuolo said. “The problem is, we run them through an assembly line…They’re not being given enough time to learn. We all learn at different rates of speed, yet we operate schools as if that isn’t the case.”

He said if schools fail to change, “we’re never going to get results…The [latest] Mastery Test and CAPT results illustrate that.”