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Again, Good Test Scores

But Children In Other States Are Catching Up To Connecticut

By ROBERT A. FRAHM, Courant Staff Writer

September 26, 2007

Connecticut's fourth-graders remain among the nation's best readers, but children in several other states are catching up. In one state - Massachusetts - they are clearly out in front, test results released Tuesday show.

Connecticut fourth-graders also scored well above average in mathematics, but trailed students in five other states. Eighth-graders trailed children in six other states, according to results released Tuesday on the National Assessment of Educational Progress.

Connecticut's performance on the test, also known as the Nation's Report Card, remained relatively stable in comparison to results two years ago - though other states showed significant gains.

"We have to keep in mind that our strong performance needs to be stronger every year to maintain our position among the top performers in America," said state Education Commissioner Mark K. McQuillan.

Among the findings for Connecticut:

In reading, 41 percent of fourth-graders scored at or above the proficient level, compared with a national average of 32 percent. Eight other states had roughly similar scores, while Massachusetts led all states at 49 percent.

In eighth-grade reading, 37 percent of Connecticut students met or exceeded the reading proficiency standard, well above the national rate of 29 percent. The results were comparable to those in 18 other states, but behind those of Massachusetts and Vermont.

In mathematics, 45 percent of fourth-graders and 35 percent of eighth-graders met or surpassed proficiency standards, compared with national averages of 39 percent in fourth grade and 31 percent in eighth grade. Five other states had significantly better performance on the fourth-grade test; six states performed better on the eighth-grade test.

Girls' scores in math in Connecticut were roughly equal to those of boys, but girls significantly outperformed boys in reading at both fourth and eighth grades.

Across the nation, student achievement in both math and reading continued to rise, with the most encouraging results occurring in Massachusetts, where schools had the largest proportion of students meeting proficiency standards in both fourth and eighth grades.

Officials there credited a school reform movement that began in 1993, leading to statewide standards in every subject and grade, a large increase in school funding, and an extensive, high-stakes testing system.

"Reform is actually working here," said Heidi Guarino, a spokeswoman for the Massachusetts Department of Education. "Teachers have adopted the standards. Kids are trying harder."

She said, "The last couple of years we've had a real focus on math," an effort reflected in the latest scores.

The Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System includes a 10th-grade test that students must pass before graduation. That requirement has been in effect since 2003. Connecticut does not have a graduation test, but state education officials, led by McQuillan, are studying the idea.

McQuillan, who became commissioner earlier this year, came to Connecticut from Massachusetts, where he once worked as deputy education commissioner and was key in that state's school reform efforts.

"Massachusetts has had a very high standard, and they have stuck to it, and I think they are seeing the results," he said Tuesday. "They've been doing it a lot longer than anybody else."

In Connecticut, McQuillan has focused on bolstering student achievement, including discouraging levels of performance by low-income and minority students, who lag far behind middle-class and white students.

The latest national results show some narrowing of the gap between white and black students in fourth-grade reading and eighth-grade mathematics, but the gaps remain large. In Connecticut, the gaps are among the largest in the nation.

Although Connecticut's scores on the national test remained relatively stable, state officials have been concerned about an erosion of reading scores on earlier national tests and on the annual statewide Mastery Test. The downward trend prompted McQuillan recently to announce plans for a reading summit of top experts this fall. The summit is designed to examine issues such as how schools manage time, which reading programs work best, and how teachers are trained.

In addition, a State Board of Education committee is expected to make recommendations this fall on high school reforms, possibly including new coursework and some form of exit requirement for graduation. McQuillan said any exit requirement likely will be more nuanced than the Massachusetts exam, perhaps including various end-of-course subject tests and some form of senior project.

"There is evidence that a sustained approach to holding students accountable at the secondary level has a lasting influence both at the secondary level and [pre-kindergarten] through eighth grade," he said.

U.S. Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings said the latest national scores are encouraging. "Math scores for fourth- and eighth-graders and the reading scores for fourth-graders are at historic highs and the biggest gains were made by African American and Hispanic students," she said.

She cited the latest nationwide scores as evidence of the success of the government's No Child Left Behind Act, the centerpiece of President Bush's school reform agenda.

However, that assertion was disputed by Robert Schaeffer, an official with FairTest, a Massachusetts-based watchdog group that frequently has criticized high-stakes standardized testing. The organization said gains from 2000 to 2003 were significantly greater than they were from 2003 to 2007, when the federal law was in effect.

"No one is criticizing the notion of better standards and more resources," Schaeffer said. "FairTest's concern has been on using narrow multiple-choice tests to drive curriculum and learning."

As for Massachusetts, he said, that state had some of the nation's best test results "before test-driven reform was even a glimmer in a politician's eye."

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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