Eighth-graders in Connecticut improved their reading scores significantly and fourth-graders held steady as the state posted some of the nation’s highest scores on results of a national test released Wednesday.

However, minority and low-income students continued to lag farther behind white and wealthier students than in most other states on fourth- and eighth-grade reading tests in the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), also known as the Nation’s Report Card.

“We are pleased with our students’ overall performance,” state Education Commissioner Mark McQuillan said in a prepared statement. Nevertheless, “our schools face tremendous challenges in effectively meeting the needs of all students,” he said.

The trend in Connecticut was similar to nationwide trends on the U.S. Department of Education test. Among the findings:

  • Forty-three percent of Connecticut’s eighth-graders scored at or above the proficiency level, the same percentage as in Massachusetts and a higher mark than in all other states. The national average was 30 percent.
  • On the fourth-grade test, 42 percent of Connecticut’s students scored at or above the proficiency level, compared with 32 percent nationwide. Only Massachusetts, at 47 percent, had a higher percentage.
  • Girls outperformed boys. In eighth grade, 48 percent of girls in Connecticut met the proficiency standard, compared with 37 percent of boys.
  • Despite some improvement in test scores among disadvantaged students, just 18 percent of the state’s low-income fourth-graders and eighth-graders met the proficiency standard, compared with 52 percent of fourth-graders and 51 percent of eighth-graders from wealthier families.
  • Slightly more than half of white fourth-graders, 52 percent, met or exceeded the proficiency mark, compared with 22 percent of black students and 15 percent of Hispanics. In eighth grade, 51 percent of whites scored at or above the proficiency level, but only 11 percent of blacks and 19 percent of Hispanics.

“We know we still have a lot of work to do. At the same time, it’s nice to see there have been some gains,” said Patricia Foley, a reading consultant with the State Department of Education.

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In recent years, schools across the state have renewed their emphasis on reading out of concern over stagnating test scores, Foley said.  For much of the past decade, scores have remained relatively flat on statewide reading tests. And on the national reading test, Connecticut – tops in the nation for fourth-graders as recently as 2003 – had begun to slip behind other states, most notably Massachusetts.

Educators and other experts across the state held a reading summit in 2007 to address problems such as the chronic achievement gap among low-income and minority children. Since then, many school districts have changed their approach.

“They are reworking their curriculum, looking at standards, setting high expectations,” Foley said.

In Middletown, for example, officials hired full-time literacy coaches and added extra time for reading instruction at middle schools, said Barbara Senges, the district’s associate superintendent for teaching and learning. The district also began using data more extensively to monitor student progress and focused on teaching reading in other subjects such as science, math and social studies, she said.

“Our scores [on state tests] had been significantly lower in reading than in math and writing, so we decided to focus on reading,” Senges said.

At Middletown’s Lawrence School, Principal Enza Macri said the school has increased the amount of time spent on reading and has created individual learning plans for students who need additional help.

“If you look at the statistics . . . a lot of people who are struggling in life are poor readers,” she said. “We have the capability to help children achieve success.”

On the national test, Connecticut was one of nine states showing improved performance by eighth-graders between 2007 and 2009.

The test was given last year to nearly 340,000 fourth- and eighth-graders across the nation. It featured a broader range of informational and literary texts, including poetry, than in previous tests. Also, more than in the past, it required students to draw conclusions and evaluate the quality of arguments, NAEP officials said.

“When it comes to challenging kinds of questions where students have to dig deeper into passages, they fall short,” said Kim Kozbial-Hess, a fourth-grade teacher from Ohio and a member of the National Assessment Governing Board.

Another governing board member, West Virginia State Superintendent of Schools Steven Paine, expressed disappointment in the latest nationwide scores. “After a considerable amount of effort over the past two decades, the reading achievement of students across the country shows very little change,” he said at a Washington, D.C. press conference where the results were announced.

The disparity between low-income and wealthier students and between whites and minority students remains a serious problem across the country. It has been the target of numerous reform efforts, such as the federal No Child Left Behind Act. Nationwide, 41 percent of white fourth-graders met or exceeded the proficiency standard, compared with 15 percent of black students and 16 percent of Hispanic students.

On the eighth-grade test, the gap between whites and blacks and between low-income and wealthier students is larger in Connecticut than in any other state. The scores were released the day after a state report showed that nearly 40 percent of black and Hispanic high school students fail to graduate on time.

The NAEP scores “confirm something that’s been true for way too long. The disparities in achievement are extreme,” said Alex Johnston, head of the school reform group Connecticut Coalition for Achievement Now.

Nevertheless, Johnston said he is encouraged that several bills are pending before the state legislature to address the achievement gap. Among them is a proposal to use achievement data as part of a framework to hold teachers, principals and even teacher training programs more accountable for student progress.

More accountability is a key, said Margie Gillis, a research scientist at Haskins Laboratories, a New Haven research institute specializing in language and literacy.

“We have a lot of room for improvement,” she said. “We’re failing kids, and we can’t afford to do that. We know what needs to be done. The question is, do we have the political will?”

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