Connecticut Education Association President Kate Dias answers reporters’ questions about CEA’s latest survey CEA

The state’s most recent data on chronic absenteeism and test scores are a “snapshot” of an ever-changing learning landscape and an opportunity for more creative efforts to reengage K-12 students, educators said this week.

With technology playing a larger role in the classroom, the state’s student body becoming more diverse and students’ career opportunities and interests evolving, school staff have been searching for innovative ways to engage students, measure achievement and teach skills they’ll need to succeed, said Kate Dias, president of the Connecticut Education Association, the state’s largest teachers’ union.

“We need to be really highly reflective of the fact that the students we’re educating today are very different than the students we were dealing with 20 years ago,” Dias said. “There’s a very strong sense of what work should look like with students today that didn’t exist 20 years ago. Even the whole idea that we have students who will go out and be influencers and gamers as their careers — that changes the value that they have on some of their academic pursuits. It becomes a struggle for relevance, and so I think that’s a piece of our puzzle.”

The Department of Education’s 2022-23 attendance and student assessment data, released Monday morning, showed that chronic absenteeism has declined for the first time since the onset of COVID-19 but remains nearly double pre-pandemic rates. Over 100,000, or 20%, of students across the state are still missing at least 18 days of school throughout the year.

The report also showed that student test scores have not changed significantly compared to the 2021-22 academic year, with a drop in English Language Arts and slight increases in math and science. The scores still lag below state averages from 2018-19.

“We know that those two things are not unrelated. If you’re talking about 100,000 children who are struggling with chronic absenteeism, your max capacity on any test score would be 80% success, and that would be if everybody was high achieving, high performing … because we know that the 20% who are chronically absent are going to underperform no matter what we do because they just don’t have the exposure to the content,” Dias said. “[But,] the other piece of this is whenever I see these standardized test scores, I always want to remind people that these are not the end all be all. Students who get high test scores are not guaranteed to be wildly successful in life. … What it tells us is they have achieved a skill set that we value by sitting them and taking a test.”

Dias added that learning is better looked at as a cycle rather than a straight line, with some students’ achievements not being captured on standardized tests at all.

“We have kids who, yes, can read and write and do math. We care about those things, but we also find that the students who are most successful are those who are flexible thinkers. They’re creative. They’re problem solvers. They’re collaborative. They have all these skill sets that we don’t actually measure at all,” Dias said. “I take the fact that [the data is] trending, in many cases, in the right direction to be a positive thing, but I think we also need to contemplate modernizing our measures of success.”

Educators and advocates had discussed and moved toward more innovative teaching methods even before the pandemic, including by recognizing the need for a more hands-on approach, moving away from standardized testing and reconsidering whether a portfolio or summary report would be more effective than a report card.

However, COVID-19 sped up the process, as problems in the education system became magnified and more urgent.

“The trend lines were already kind of starting prior to the pandemic. … Now we have teacher shortages. Now we have districts that are struggling to hire. We also have kids that are trying to have positive experiences with highly qualified educators in places where they can learn,” said Hamish MacPhail, policy and research director at ConnCAN, an education advocacy organization based in New Haven. “There’s all this blending in these different systems in place that are contributing to where we are. I think that where there’s difficulty and frustration — and perhaps a disappointment — of where we are, there’s also more people looking to your left and right saying, ‘How can we figure this out?’”

Dias added that since the pandemic, school districts have had to learn how to be adaptable — something she said was not historically seen in education.

“We’ve stayed fairly steady and predictable — we just don’t live in that world anymore — and so making sure that our education system prepares our students for an ever-changing, ever-evolving world is both exciting and overwhelming and daunting,” Dias said. “I think we’re in a really interesting place to have a lot of good conversations about what does the pathway forward look like and how do we make sure our students have what they need to be really successful.”

The state has responded by creating additional funding resources, including a $10 million investment for math tutoring for middle schoolers and a $15 million grant spread across 72 school districts to boost mental health resources

But there’s still some urgency to move more quickly, especially as Connecticut’s classrooms continue to diversify and students of color make up nearly 53% of the student body. About 53.3% of Black students and 54.1% of Latino students are meeting the state’s performance index in English language arts, compared to 70.9% of white students and 71.7% of Asian students, according to state data.

The rate is lower for Black and Latino children in math, with around 45.8% of Black students and 48.8% Latino students meeting the benchmark.

“I think that we continuously need to evaluate in Connecticut how we help support districts to improve, and what the menu of options that we have is from a state level and also from a district level that we can utilize to help catalyze improvement,” MacPhail said. “I respect the work that the state department is doing on it, but I know that the pace of change needs to continue to accelerate if we’re going to ever actually close persistent opportunity gaps, because at this pace of change, it’s going to take generations — if at all.”

As for locally and in the classroom, initiatives differ based on the school or district. 

“We’re going to do everything we can to make those critical baseline skills interesting and fun and an enjoyable learning experience, but often, it’s when we have the opportunity to enrich the experience that we really start to be able to push kids’ boundaries of learning,” Dias said. “[There’s] a much greater willingness to be experimental, where [we’re saying] ‘Let’s think about this. Let’s study this. Let’s try and see what happens.’ … We’re becoming a little bit more risk takers with the idea that we need to be responsible, but we can’t stand still.”

Jessika Harkay is CT Mirror’s Education Reporter, covering the K-12 achievement gap, education funding, curriculum, mental health, school safety, inequity and other education topics. Jessika's experience includes roles as a breaking news reporter at the Fort Worth Star-Telegram and the Hartford Courant. She has a Bachelor’s degree in Journalism from Baylor University.