For years, Melba Flores lagged behind her New Haven public school classmates in learning to read; it was not until her family brought her to a private tutor that she finally made progress.
“I wondered if I would ever catch up,” Melba said, now a freshman at Cooperative Arts and Humanities High School in New Haven.
Education experts say Melba’s story is common. In the state’s cities, it is common to have only one out of every seven students reading proficiently, according to the State Department of Education.
One problem, education advocates say, is that teachers don’t get assessments of their students’ reading skills and needs until well after halfway through the school year.
“Teachers are lacking a tool kit,” said Elaine Zimmerman, executive director of the Connecticut Commission on Children. “It’s a nightmare. We have to identify the problem earlier and figure out how to solve it rapidly.”
Current law mandates school districts in the state with the greatest academic shortcomings, known as priority school districts, evaluate each students’ reading level halfway through and at the end of the school year.
Because those assessments are still done on paper, education advocates say it can take up to a month for teachers to get the results.
That means teachers do not have an overview of which reading skills their students are struggling with and where they should focus their attention until a few months before the end of the school year.
For students like Melba, that was too late. Each year she was passed onto the next grade and fell farther behind. Her family finally sent her to a tutor funded by the non-profit group New Haven Reads. Melba’s tutor, Tanya Smith, said the waiting lists for assistance are months long.
Members of the Black and Puerto Rican Caucus have proposed an overhaul in how the state’s priority school districts assess students’ progress in reading.
A proposal drafted by the the caucus would require assessments be done also at the start of the school year and begin assessments in kindergarten. It also creates a pilot program for five school districts to stop using an aged pen-and-paper assessment tool and use technologically savvy assessments.
“Assessments will be turned around in 30 minutes,” said Zimmerman. “No more waiting for results or taking up teacher’s valuable time filling out this very time consuming paperwork.”
Amy Radikas, a consultant with the State Department of Education, said she believes the current method is successful in measuring whether students are where they should be, but updating the system is sure to help.
“The technology is out there, we should embrace that,” she said. “It would definitely be a time saver for [teachers]. That’s time that can go to other tasks.”
Rep. Douglas McCrory, who has been a vice principal in Hartford for years, said reading problems are the number one contributor to the achievement gap that exists between low-income students and their more affluent peers. Connecticut has long been plagued with having the largest achievement gap in the nation.
“Teachers need immediate feedback so they can go in their [classroom] tomorrow and fix the problem,” the Hartford Democrat said. “This has been kicking our behind for the last 30 years.”
“We are wasting time,” echoed Rep. Jason Rojas, D-East Hartford, and also a member of the caucus. “If we are going to close the achievement gap it’s going to start with [teaching] reading.”
The co-chairman of the legislature’s Education Committee agrees the current reading assessment is failing.
“It’s a blunt instrument that is really not good enough,” said Rep. Andy Fleischmann, D-West Hartford. “How do any of the pieces fall into place if you don’t get this right?”
The Appropriations Committee is expected to hold a public hearing on the caucus’s bill in the next few weeks.