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,"
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
"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
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
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.
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