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4th-Grade Reading Results Take Downturn

October 20, 2005
By ROBERT A. FRAHM, Courant Staff Writer

Fourth Grade Reading: A Snapshot
(PDF file, one page)

Connecticut's fourth-graders remain well above average on a national achievement test but can no longer claim to be the nation's best readers.

That honor goes to schoolchildren in Massachusetts, where public schools posted the highest scores in both reading and mathematics in results released Wednesday on a nationwide test of fourth- and eighth-graders.

While test scores across the United States improved since 2003, Connecticut lost ground in the proportion of fourth-graders deemed proficient in reading on the National Assessment of Educational Progress, also known as the Nation's Report Card.

That follows a similar decline between 2000 and 2004 on the Connecticut Mastery Test in fourth-grade reading - "the one area we've seen turn in the wrong direction," said state Education Commissioner Betty J. Sternberg. "It raises a red flag for me."

Sternberg also worried about figures showing that Connecticut has made only limited progress helping its most disadvantaged students close a stubborn achievement gap.

On the national test, low-income and minority students in the state made some gains over the past decade, especially at fourth grade, but still lagged far behind their white and middle-class classmates.

The gap "is big, and it has stayed big," Sternberg said.

Sternberg said the latest test results underscore the need for reforms such as an expansion of preschool classes in the state's neediest school districts, better curriculum and testing, and a longer school day and school year.

Here are some of the findings:

In mathematics, average scores across the United States rose to their highest level in 15 years for fourth- and eighth-graders.

Reading scores for fourth-graders nationwide improved slightly, but the gains are less dramatic than in mathematics. At eighth grade, reading scores declined since 2003. No states had higher average eighth-grade scores in reading than in 2003.

Although they still lagged behind white students, black and Hispanic fourth-graders posted larger gains in reading scores than other groups.

The report "confirms ... we are on the right track, especially with our younger students," said U.S. Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings.

Spellings has been a strong advocate for the No Child Left Behind Act, the centerpiece of President Bush's education reform strategy. The law calls for a broad expansion of testing and a shake-up of schools that fail to make sufficient progress with all students, including low-income children, special education students and members of minority groups.

However, many of those reforms, including new reading programs, are aimed at children as young as kindergartners and may not have had much impact on the latest test of fourth- and eighth-graders.

Although the latest test showed some gains, only about one-third of the nation's fourth- and eighth-graders were judged proficient or better in reading or mathematics.

The test separates scores into four categories: below basic, basic, proficient and advanced.

The proficiency standard on the national test is much tougher than that of many state tests, including the annual Connecticut Mastery Test. On the most recent Connecticut test, for example, 67 percent of fourth-graders met the reading proficiency standard, compared with just 39 percent who met or exceeded the national reading standard.

Two years ago, 43 percent of the state's fourth-graders met or exceeded the national proficiency mark, putting Connecticut in a virtual statistical tie with Massachusetts, New Hampshire and New Jersey for the highest proportion of students meeting that reading standard.

This year, Connecticut performed as well or better than all other states in fourth-grade reading except for Massachusetts, where 44 percent of fourth-graders were deemed proficient or better.

Although Massachusetts excluded a larger proportion of students from testing than Connecticut did, "they clearly have pulled out in the lead," Sternberg said. "I do wonder what it is they're doing."

Heidi Perlman, a spokeswoman for the Massachusetts Department of Education, attributed the state's performance to a set of education reforms passed in 1993, including "an unprecedented financial commitment [to schools] and the development of a high-stakes assessment system."

"It has led to a tremendous push in our schools from the bottom up," she said.

The Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System includes a 10th-grade test that students must pass before graduation. Connecticut also has a 10th-grade test but has not made passing the test mandatory for graduation.

As expected, Wednesday's results fueled a debate over the best way to help low-performing students.

FairTest, a Boston-based group that has been critical of high-stakes testing programs, including the No Child Left Behind Act, said the latest scores "show that high-stakes, punitive testing does not produce meaningful improvements."

The federal law was enacted in 2002, but reading scores for black and Hispanic children have been relatively flat since then, while math gains for those groups have tapered off after showing gains during the 1990s, FairTest said.

However, Kati Haycock, director of Education Trust, a Washington, D.C., advocacy group, said the federal law "serves an important function by shining a bright spotlight on how all students are performing academically."

Education Trust said that although the gap between minority and white students is narrowing, large gaps persist in too many states, citing Massachusetts and Connecticut as examples.

Despite its high scores, Massachusetts has among the biggest Latino-white reading gaps in the country while Connecticut has among the largest gaps in achievement between poor students and their more affluent peers in reading and math at both fourth and eighth grade, the group said.

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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