Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium

A slightly greater percentage of  Connecticut students performed at grade level on this year’s state standardized test, with the state’s black and Hispanic students outpacing the statewide rate of improvement.

Still, the state’s yawning achievement gap continued to sharply divide Connecticut students along racial, ethnic and economic lines, with white children at least twice as likely to hit the proficiency benchmark as their black and Hispanic peers.

 “While we continue to see promising year-to-year increases for all student groups meeting or exceeding their achievement benchmark in both [English Language Arts] and math, our mission to close gaps around the state remains a priority,” said Education Commissioner Miguel Cardona. “Together with our districts and school leaders, we will identify the local practices that are working and focus our support on the instructional core at the heart of the work.”

He said a strong instructional core will “serve as a foundation for achieving successful outcomes for all students regardless of zip code.”

Overall, the state’s students scored only slightly better on the English portion of the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium exam this year, with 55.7% of students scoring at grade level — 0.4% more than last year. Proficiency on the English test hasn’t changed much since the state began administering the test five years ago, when 55.3% of students met the benchmark score.

Performance on the math test also showed only a slight improvement, with 48.1% of students reaching proficiency — 1.3 percentage points over last year’s rate. However, over the past five years, scores on the math test — which have been markedly lower than the English test — have shown significant progress. Only 38.9% of students scored at grade level in math in 2014-15, compared to 48.1% this year.

Ajit Gopalakrishnan, chief performance officer for the state, said the steady improvement in math scores is occurring because “teachers fully understand what the standards are. They know what needs to be covered, there’s solid communication among the teachers both within the grade, but also across the grades.”

And, he said, paraprofessionals, who understand the standards, are supporting the most vulnerable students.

“I could go on about some of the reasons. It’s not a simple reason,” he said. “I think with all of these factors put together, we’re seeing strong improvement in math across all students groups … but again, there are still large gaps. They are getting a little bit better, but there are still large gaps and we have a lot of work to do.”

The percentages of black and Hispanic students reaching proficiency benchmarks in math over the last five years has increased significantly, while steady but lesser progress has been made in English. However, in both subjects the growth in the percentage of  black and Hispanic students reaching the benchmark this year compared to last has outpaced statewide progress.

“While we continue to see promising year-to-year increases for all student groups meeting or exceeding their achievement benchmark in both [English Language Arts] and math, our mission to close gaps around the state remains a priority.”

Education Commissioner Miguel Cardona

Only 13.9% of black students scored at grade level in math in 2014-15, compared to 23.3% this year. This year the percentage of black students scoring at grade level in math was 1.6 percentage points higher than last year. In English, 30.3% of black students performed at grade level five years ago, compared to 34.2% — up one percentage point over last year.

Over the past five years, the percentage of Hispanic students reaching the benchmark in math increased from 17% to 27%. This year’s rate increased 1.7 percentage points over last year’s.

The percentage of Hispanic students hitting the proficiency mark in English went from 32.7% five years ago to 35.7% this year with this year’s rate exceeding last year’s by 1.6 percentage points.

In addition, students designated as high needs — students who are eligible for free or reduced price lunch, are learning to speak English, or have special education needs — also showed increases in the percentage of students achieving grade-level scores this year compared to last year.

Despite the improvements for black, Hispanic, and low-income students, white students and those from middle and upper income families reached grade-level scores at twice the rate or more, with almost 70%  of white students reaching the benchmark in English and 62.1% reaching it in math.

Andrea Comer, executive director of Educators for Excellence, said that “while the incremental increases are encouraging, we need to move at a quicker rate, particularly if you are linking this to the state’s economy and the state’s ability to grow, as well as the changing demographic of the state.

“We’re not the the same hue by percentage that we were years ago so if we are going to continue to be competitive as a state, then we’re going to have to figure out a way to close the gap,” Comer added. “Until we get this right, we are going to continue to struggle to have the kind of workforce that industry needs.”

Comer said closing the achievement gap doesn’t happen in the classroom alone.

Andrea Comer

“This is tied in so many ways to poverty,” Comer said. “Kids can’t focus on learning if their lights are out. Housing, crime, poverty, unemployment — I think we are are going to continue to have these incremental small increases until we are really strategic, holistic about addressing some of those other conditions. You can’t focus on education in a silo.”

Emphasizing the positive in the report, Gopalakrishnan noted also that the state’s Alliance Districts — the state’s 33 lowest performing districts — also showed significant improvement.

Twenty-one of the 33 districts showed greater improvement than overall state averages.

“That’s definitely a sign in line with the increases we are seeing among high need students,” Gopalakrishnan said. “So that’s very reassuring.”

Less encouraging, state officials said, was another measure — called the growth rate — which evaluates the improvement achieved by the same student from one year to the next.

The aim is to have all students achieve above average growth so they are on pace to reach or maintain high levels of achievement, but Gopalakrishnan said that students statewide are, on average, only reaching about 60% of their annual growth targets.

“This is tied in so many ways to poverty. Kids can’t focus on learning if their lights are out. You can’t focus on education in a silo.”

Andrea Comer
Executive Director, Educators for Excellence

He said that if districts focus on ensuring students’ academic growth, better achievement on tests will follow.

In at least two districts — both Alliance Districts — superintendents were pleased with their students’ progress.

Meriden Superintendent Mark Benigni attributed the district’s improved scores to a “standards-based curriculum implemented across all grade levels. We’re doing a good job of tracking where students are at and then providing support.”

On the English test, the percentage of Meriden students reaching grade level was 40.1% in 2015-16 and is now 47.6% — up 7.5 percentage points. The performance on the math test increased from 25.6% four years ago to 38.3% this year — an increase of 12.7 points.

Benigni said additional funding through the Alliance District program has helped, allowing Meriden to provide more professional development for teachers.

In addition, he said, the use of technology has helped boost performance. Students can work at their own pace on a device, he said, which allows a teacher to work with small groups of students who need extra help.

Vernon Superintendent Joseph Macary said students there also showed significant improvement, with 53.3% reaching grade level on the English test compared to 44.6% four years ago, while in math 47.1% of students hit the benchmark or better this year, compared to 33.1% four years ago.

Macary attributes the gains to the district’s “blueprint for success” which focuses on “five drivers” — including professional development, a rigorous curriculum, intervention with students, engagement with families and the community, and hiring the right people.

“We’ve got the right recipe and I’m proud of it,” Macary said.

In Hartford, the rate of students reaching the benchmark went up in math over the past four years — from 16% to 18.2% — and down slightly in English from 25.8% to 24.5%.

A spokesman for Hartford said Friday the district was still analyzing the scores.

Suburbs in the Hartford area saw smalls ups and downs, with the percentage of students reaching the proficiency standards in the 70th percentiles in affluent towns like Avon and Glastonbury.

Kathleen Megan wrote for more than three decades for the Hartford Courant, covering education in recent years and winning many regional and national awards. She is now covering education and child welfare issues for the Mirror.

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5 Comments

  1. Maybe instead of focusing on why Hispanic and Black Students are underperforming. We should be asking, “Why are Asian Students performing at all levels beyond that of other ethnic groups. Let’s focus on emulating what works, as opposed to continually throwing state taxpayer money at what doesn’t. Something to ponder…

  2. When trying to determine why certain racial or ethnic groups do better than others, many politicians and members of the education establishment continue to ignore one factor — family structure. I suspect that if the politicians and educators were to check, they would find that the academic performance of children correlated to the child having an intact family — with both a father and mother at home.

  3. A reliable source https://object.cato.org/sites/cato.org/files/pubs/pdf/pa746.pdf
    provides evidence indicating that per pupil costs/expenditures
    have increased at a 45 degree angle since the 1970s, but average reading,
    writing and arithmetic scores have not increased at all (see especially Page
    2). Data for states are provided )

    The stability of average performance on tests of reading writing and arithmetic
    is due not so much to lack of effort as to resistance of such abilities to
    change—as suggested by data for a recent (almost) 30-year period
    showing the average performance of all students as well as students classified
    by race/ethnicity, taking an internationally recognized test (the SAT). See
    table below, showing SAT Critical Reading averages for selected years. Note.
    Data for Asian-Americans indicate that they’re exceptions to that rule. Their average has improved
    steadily, and they’re now “leaders of the pack”).

    Table 1. SAT Critical Reading average selected years
    1987 ’97 2001 ’06 ’11 ’15 ’16
    507 505 506 503 497 495 494 All students
    524 526 529 527 528 529 528 White
    479 496 501 510 517 525 529 Asian
    …………………………… .. …..436 Hispanic
    457 451 451 454 451 448 Mex-Am
    436 454 457 459 452 448 Puerto R
    464 466 460 458 451 449 Oth Hisp
    471 475 481 487 484 481 447 Amer Ind
    428 434 433 434 428 431 430 Black
    SOURCE: U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education
    Statistics.(2012). Digest of Education Statistics, 2011 (NCES 2012-001),
    Chapter 2.SAT averages for college-bound seniors, by race/ethnicity: Selected
    years,1986-87 through 2010–11 Data for 2015&2016 https://nces.ed.gov/fastfac
    Note 2016 data were not provided for Hispanic subgroups.

    If SAT averages haven’t changed materially over almost 30 years, despite the
    effort, time and money expended to improve educational programs for all
    students, it seems reasonable to assume that we shouldn’t expect any meaningful
    change in average level of performance in this critically important ability in
    the foreseeable future.

    And what if the achievement gap is here to stay!!

    1. Hi SpecialKinNJ, we welcome your comments but please note that our guidelines require that comments be limited to 1,000 characters. We will not be able to approve comments that exceed that limit going forward.

  4. With results like these, how valuable is a CT high school degree to potential employers?
    How many students repeat grades when their performance is not at grade level?
    In this context, an improvement in the graduation rate seems to be an admission that failure is acceptable.
    The quote showing that factors outside school are considered important is reassuring. But what’s being done to help (some) students become more capable of learning? References to teaching and curriculum seem more palliative than direct help.

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