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Study Says Test Scores Going In Wrong Direction

Commissioner Questions Report's Findings

March 3, 2006
By ROBERT A. FRAHM, Courant Staff Writer

Connecticut's opposition to a federal school reform law may be one reason it is among the only states to report recent declines in reading and math scores, according to sponsors of a national study released Thursday.

Most states reported gains between 2003 and 2005 on statewide elementary and middle school tests under the demands of the federal No Child Left Behind Act, but Connecticut did not, said a study by The Education Trust.

Connecticut was the only state to report slight declines in performance in mathematics at both the elementary and middle school levels and one of only a handful of states showing declines in reading.

Why did the performance slip?

"It's mostly just speculation," said Kati Haycock, director of The Education Trust, but one possibility is that Connecticut set its standard for meeting No Child Left Behind requirements lower than the score students must reach to meet a separate state goal on the annual Connecticut Mastery Test, signaling to teachers that "they don't have to work as hard."

Another possible explanation, she said, is that the state is "trying to get out from under the federal law. That kind of public opposition ... is often interpreted by local educators as permission not to try."

State Education Commissioner Betty J. Sternberg had a different explanation for the decline. She said over the period that was examined, "There was a tremendous increase in the number of youngsters taking the test," including special education students and children who spoke little English.

"The Education Trust often puts out statistical information that doesn't tell the full story," she said.

Last summer, Connecticut officials sued the federal government, contending that the expansion of testing required under No Child Left Behind is an unfunded mandate that will cost state and local taxpayers hundreds of millions of dollars. The case is pending.

The Education Trust is a Washington advocacy group working to improve educational opportunities for poor and minority students. The group has expressed support for No Child Left Behind.

Connecticut lost ground between 2003 and 2005 in the proportion of fourth-graders deemed proficient in reading and mathematics on the annual Connecticut Mastery Test. In reading, 79 percent were judged as proficient or better, and in math 67 percent - a 2 percentage point decline in each subject.

Similar declines occurred in eighth grade, where 76 percent met the state's proficiency standard in reading, a 1 percentage point drop, and 75 percent met the math standard, a 3 point drop.

Roughly one-third to one-half of the states were excluded from portions of The Education Trust's analysis because of incomplete or unavailable data.

In states where data could be analyzed, nearly all showed progress, and several states posted large gains. In elementary school reading, for example, the proportion of students meeting proficiency standards grew by 10 percentage points or more in Florida, Hawaii and Idaho. In elementary math, seven states posted double-digit gains.

"The news in elementary schools is very good," Haycock said. "Achievement is up in almost every state." Middle schools generally reported encouraging improvement, but the results at high schools were mixed, she said.

In Connecticut, high schools reported modest overall improvement, including gains by black and Latino students that helped them close the performance gap with white students.

"I don't believe we've set our standards too low," Sternberg said. And the claim that Connecticut's lawsuit may be linked to a decline in test scores "is just incorrect," she said.

Across the nation, high schools generally made little progress in closing the achievement gap that finds many minority and low-income students lagging behind white or more well-to-do classmates, Haycock said.

Closing those gaps is a key goal of the No Child Left Behind Act, the centerpiece of President Bush's school reform agenda. The law calls for a broad expansion of testing and a shake-up of schools that fail to make adequate progress with all students, including low-income children, special education students and members of minority groups.

At the elementary level, 22 of the 29 states in The Education Trust analysis narrowed the reading achievement gap between white and black children. Connecticut was among the states where the gap narrowed even though the test scores of both white and black fourth-graders declined.

"It's just that white students fell faster than black students," said Daria Hall, one of the authors of the report. "This is absolutely the wrong kind of gap closing."

Sternberg, however, questioned some of the report's conclusions. Although fourth-grade reading has been an area of concern, state figures show that black and Latino students have made progress closing the gap in several other areas between 2000 and 2004, she said.

The Education Trust also reported that many states, including Connecticut, set a much lower proficiency standard than the standard on the National Assessment of Educational Progress, a test given in all states.

For example, 67 percent of Connecticut's fourth-graders met the state's reading proficiency standard but only 38 percent met the national proficiency mark on the most recent tests.

In states where many fewer students reach the national standard than are able to reach the state standard, "It's a sign that something is wrong," Haycock said.

"There are reasons for people to ask questions whether their state standards are rigorous enough."

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant. To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at http://www.courant.com/archives.
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