Published by Hartford Courant, November 24, 2010

Connecticut’s academic achievement gap lasts all the way through senior year of high school and remains the largest in the nation, a school reform group says.

ConnCAN, an education advocacy group, said its analysis shows that the state’s low-income and minority 12th-graders performed about three grade levels behind their white, middle-class peers on national test results released last week.

Previous analyses by ConnCAN have found that Connecticut has the largest achievement gap in the nation in elementary and middle school, but its latest study says the gap persists through 12th grade.

State education officials dispute the analysis, though, and say the 12th-grade gap has more to do with Connecticut’s white students doing better than white students across the county.

“Our African American and Hispanic students did not score significantly differently than their counterparts nationally,” state Department of Education spokesman Tom Murphy said. “Our white students scored significantly better than their counterparts nationally — therefore, a gap.”

The ConnCAN analysis is based on state-specific test results in math and reading on the National Assessment of Education Progress. Connecticut was one of 11 states to voluntarily participate in a pilot program to test high school seniors.

Evidence of the Connecticut gap is based on comparisons with the 10 other states as well as the national average. The NAEP test results showed that Connecticut seniors did fairly well overall, scoring above average in math and reading compared to the other states.

ConnCAN’s analysis found that:

  • Low-income 12th-graders lagged 2.8 grade levels behind their wealthier peers in reading and 3.1 grade levels behind in math.
  • African American 12th-graders trailed 3.6 grade levels behind their white counterparts in reading and 3.3 grade levels behind in math.
  • Hispanic 12th-graders lagged 2.7 grade levels behind their white counterparts in reading and 3.2 grade levels behind in math.

State education officials, however, said that the test was only given to a representative sampling of students in Connecticut. In addition, the test offers no established basis for comparing scale scores with a grade-level performance, Murphy said.

“Here’s a case of misusing data, not understanding the data and then making a case for an advocacy position,” Murphy said. “We agree that we need to do more to improve the performance of African American, Hispanic and low-income students, but to define the problem incorrectly does us no good.”

Jennifer Harmon, director of research and policy for ConnCAN, declined to comment on the methodology criticism.

“Any way you look at it, the size of our achievement gap is huge and unacceptable,” she said.

ConnCAN officials said the achievement gap numbers for Connecticut could be even higher, because the test results reflect only the number of students who made it to 12th grade. Recent state reports showed that only 60 percent of low-income students, 66 percent of African American students and 58 percent of Hispanic students graduated from high school in Connecticut in 2009.

ConnCAN leaders said they were dismayed but not surprised by the national test results.

“This just builds on analysis we’ve been doing about NAEP scores. The gaps begin early and persist throughout high school and we need a comprehensive set of reforms to really close that gap,” Harmon said.

The state legislature passed a comprehensive school reform package in May that calls for tougher high school course requirements, tracking student progress through a longitudinal data system and numerous other measures, but Harmon said it doesn’t go far enough.

“Those reforms, for example, created a mandate for a new performance evaluation system for teachers but it didn’t mandate what percentage of student achievement growth should count in those evaluations,” Harmon said. “We would also argue that the legislation did not address fixing how our schools are funded.”

Steve Simmons, chairman of the Connecticut Commission on Educational Achievement, said the results reaffirm his commission’s findings.

“It’s a gap that starts early and continues through 12th grade,” Simmons said. “We must do better for these children and our state as a whole. It’s critical for the economic future of our state.”