A three-year-old experiment to reshape teaching strategies and bolster achievement in the state’s neediest and lowest-performing school districts has produced promising early results, state officials said Wednesday.

The Connecticut Accountability Learning Initiative (CALI) led to significant gains for minority students, low-income children and other groups that have lagged behind white and more affluent groups on statewide tests, according to a new state report.

The initiative–featuring consulting assistance, technical support, teacher training and an intensive focus on the use of data to measure student progress–began in 2008 in 12 of the state’s most troubled districts. The program expanded to 15 districts in 2009 and to 18 in the current school year.

“This has really helped this school to use data appropriately and to fine tune our teaching practices,” said Louise Moss, principal of the Roger Sherman School in Meriden, one of the 12 original CALI districts. “I think it’s made a world of difference.”

In a review of scores on annual statewide tests, officials found “preliminary evidence that the extra supports provided to [the districts] are having a substantial impact on student achievement,” said a report to the State Board of Education.

Officials say the CALI project holds promise for narrowing achievement gaps for minority and low-income students–gaps that for years have been among the largest in the nation.

“What we’ve seen is a closing of the gap, especially in reading,” Lol  Fearon, chief of the State Department of Education’s Bureau of Accountability and Improvement, told the state board.

Minority students account for 71 percent of the enrollment in CALI school districts, compared with 21 percent in the rest of the state. Children from low-income families make up 72 percent of the CALI districts, compared with 18 percent elsewhere in Connecticut.

An examination of test results between 2007 and 2010 on the Connecticut Mastery Test in elementary and middle schools and the Connecticut Academic Performance Test in high schools found that students in 15 CALI districts often made greater gains than similar groups of students in other districts. The three districts that joined the project this year were not included in the study.

At the elementary school level, the study followed the progress of the same groups of children as they moved through the grades. At high schools, because the state test is given only to sophomores, the study compared different 10th-grade classes from the four years of test results.

Among the findings:

  • The largest gain in the percentage of students reaching the state’s proficiency standard in reading occurred among children who were in third grade in 2007 in the 15 CALI districts. As third-graders, just 47 percent were proficient, a 33-point gap compared with students in the rest of the state. By 2010, as sixth-graders, 71 percent of the students in CALI schools met the proficiency standard, reducing the gap to 21 percentage points.
  • The largest gain in the percentage of students reaching proficiency in math occurred among children who were in fourth grade in 2007. As fourth-graders, 64 percent were proficient, but by eighth-grade, 73 percent reached the standard. During that period, there was a slight narrowing of the gap with the rest of the state, from 25 points in 2007 to  22 percentage points in 2010..
  • The percentage of white, black and Hispanic students reaching the proficiency level increased in schools across the state, but the rate of increase generally was greatest in the 15 CALI districts.
  • Among 10th-graders, the proportion of students scoring at or above the proficiency level in reading grew by 6 percentage points in the CALI schools, compared with a 2 percentage point increase in other schools.

Despite the gains, substantial achievement gaps remain, and the growth “is not fast enough,” Fearon said. Nevertheless, the CALI schools have undergone major changes and are “tying teacher decision-making at the classroom level to data,” he said. “That’s a cultural shift.”

The most encouraging gains were in reading, officials said. In 2007, for example, just 28 percent of third-graders met the state reading goal–a more difficult standard than the proficiency mark. By the time those children reached sixth grade, that figure had nearly doubled, reaching 54 percent.

“We’re seeing far fewer students with substantial deficiencies than ever before,” said Jennifer Flood, a reading specialist at Meriden’s Roger Sherman School.

A central element of the program is its emphasis on using data, including more frequent classroom tests and the increasing use of teams of educators to monitor student progress.

“Our instruction is more targeted and based on the needs of students,” Flood said. “I do feel CALI has done that.”

The districts selected for CALI were those that had failed for three years or more to make adequate progress on the math and reading standards required under the federal government’s No Child Left Behind Act.

In addition to Meriden, the original districts in the program were Bridgeport, East Hartford, Hartford, Middletown, New Britain, New Haven, New London, Norwalk, Norwich, Waterbury and Windham. Three other districts – Ansonia, Danbury and Stamford – joined in 2009, and Hamden, West Haven and Windsor were added this school year.

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