Even without a new test, state scores are down

If the state’s 2013 Connecticut Mastery Test results are any indication, schools can’t switch over to the test that accompanies the new Common Core State Standards fast enough.

Despite an ongoing effort by Gov. Dannel Malloy to use state resources to improve student achievement and narrow the nation’s worst achievement gap, scores across the board in the third through eighth grade test were down in reading, math, writing and science — all the subjects tested.

Statewide, fewer than two in three third graders can reach the goal set for them in reading and math. By eighth grade, 65.7 percent of students statewide met the goal in math and 78.9 percent met the reading goal. In both cases, the percentages were less than in 2012.

Meanwhile, high school sophomores who took the Connecticut Academic Placement Test, showed modest improvement over the class that came before them in reading, math and science, although only 48.5 percent — fewer than half — could reach the goal in reading, compared to 47.5 percent in 2012. In math, 52.6 percent met the goal in 2013, compared to 49.3 percent in 2012.

Progress on narrowing the so-called achievement gap between students was a mixed bag. On the tenth grade test, for instant the scoring gap widened between white and students who are Hispanic, African American or English language learners. The gap seems to have narrowed somewhat in science.

Despite the numbers, Commissioner of Education Stefan Pryor said there are signs that the significant steps being taken by the state are working, noting improvements in schools the state is working closely with, including Curiale School in Bridgeport.

Still, he admitted it is increasing clear what is being taught today in classrooms across the state are out of sync with what will be taught on the new tests. Under the old system for instance, statistics and probability are taught in math class in grades three through six. The new system doesn’t cover the topic until seventh grade.

“It remains clear that major work lies ahead to ensure that each student is prepared for success in college and career,” said Pryor, noting that the scores are down the most in the early grades where the shift to the new Common Core curriculum is already underway in most districts.

Even so, Pryor said he doesn’t anticipate scores will improve much to start with when the testing switch is made.

“Not initially. The expectation is that with more rigorous and more challenging content … scores will initially drop,” he predicted.

The goal is considered a high but achievable standard that has been in place in Connecticut longer than the lesser “proficiency” standard that was introduced to comply with the federal No Child Left Behind Law. Last year, Connecticut got federal permission to move away from NCLB requirements.

Released Tuesday, the new results come as the state is about to retire both its current tests and usher in a new curriculum that is aligned to state and national standards. Under the new system subjects are covered more deeply and expectations are clearer, fewer and higher. The new tests, expected to debut in pilot form next spring, will be administered on the computer.

Because of the disconnect between what is being taught and tested, the state is seeking federal approval to allow districts flexibility in using test scores in evaluating teacher performance.

Released Tuesday afternoon, district level results for Bridgeport, which for the past 18 months has been in the hands of Paul Vallas, a nationally-known figure in the education reform movement, were generally bad. Fewer elementary and middle schools students met the reading, writing and math goals. At the high school level, Bridgeport can take little consolation in slight upticks in the percentage of students meeting the reading and math goal. Even with the increase, just 11.3 percent of Bridgeport sophomores met the math goal and 8.6 percent met the reading goal.

Vallas said he knew scores this year would be unpredictable given the lack of alignment between the curriculum and the test.

“I am confident however, that the higher standards will significantly boost student performance,” said Vallas

The one bright note in Bridgeport was that scores at Curiale School, part of the Commissioner’s Network, where the percentage of students reaching the goal in reading in math in grades three, five and six all saw jumps, some by double digits. In the third grade math, the number of Curiale students who scored at or above the proficient level jumped from 27 to 52 percent while the statewide average for math proficiency in the third grad decreased by 3 percent. As part of the Network, schools get extra funding and support. At Curiale, the school day was made longer.

According to the state, a majority of charter schools showed increases in the percentage of students scoring at or above the proficiency and goal levels in a majority of tested grades and subjects. In the eighth grade at Park City Prep Charter School in Bridgeport, for instance, the percentage of seventh graders reaching the math goal jumped from 41.9 to 73.3 percent, and the percentage meeting the reading goal rose from 57.3 to 67.5 percent.

In releasing the results, the state also noted it is going back to the drawing board in developing a single grade or Student Performance Index for each district that takes into account all students and all scores. They said an auditing firm found errors in the scores released last year. The state also is investigating a few districts and schools where scores irregularities were observed. “We will report out if there have been irregularities detected,” Pryor said.

Linda Lambeck