CT’s Students Decline in National Rankings: High Student Performance is Not the Cause of Connecticut’s Achievement Gap

Last week saw the revival of a myth that attributes the cause of Connecticut’s achievement gap, which is the largest in the nation, to the high performance of our non low-income students.  It is this kind of misinformation that makes it sound like the achievement gap is an accomplishment that Connecticut should be proud of – as though it is due to particularly high levels of achievement for a group of Connecticut students.  Not so. In fact, educational assessments from the past decade demonstrate that Connecticut’s achievement gap cannot be simply attributed to the high performance of our non low-income students.

Reason #1.  Connecticut’s non low-income students, while performing relatively well compared to the nation at large, have actually been losing ground over the last decadeFor example, Connecticut’s non low-income 8th and 4th graders scored  first and second in the nation on national math assessments in 2000.  By 2011, these same tests ranked our non low-income students as twelfth in the nation in 4th grade math, and eighteenth in the nation in 8th grade math.  In other words, our non low-income students’ national ranking in math has actually fallen in the last eleven years by ten and sixteen places (depending on the grade you look at).   

Reason #2.  The performance of Connecticut’s low-income students has failed to improve at the same rate of low-income students’ performance in other states. Connecticut’s low-income students now rank in the bottom third of on national assessments in key subjects. As an example of this trend, when you compare Connecticut’s low-income students to Massachusetts’ low-income students in 8th grade math, the difference between the two states’ performances has widened over time.  In 2003, Connecticut’s low-income students performed roughly as well as their Massachusetts peers on 8th grade math assessments, but by 2011, Massachusetts’s low-income students outperformed Connecticut’s by sixteen points.* Connecticut students used to be in the top of the nation on math and reading, but the data reflect evidence of our students losing ground over the last 11 years.  This is especially evident in math, which we explore in further detail below.

As the following table illustrates, on the 4th and 8th grade NAEP math assessment, Connecticut’s non low-income students are actually no longer performing at the top of the nation and our low-income students are performing at the bottom of the nation, resulting in the nation’s largest achievement gap.  

It is not caused, as many believe, by high performance on the part of our non low-income students. In fact, if Connecticut’s achievement gap were really the result of high-performing students, then we would expect Massachusetts’ achievement gap to be the largest in the nation – since its non low-income students rank first on many national assessments (such as 4th and 8th grade reading and math).  But Connecticut’s achievement gap is the largest in the nation, not Massachusetts’. Tune in later this week to learn how Massachusetts has achieved these enviable gains in student performance and what Connecticut can learn from their success.

* 2003 scores were not statistically significantly different, whereas 2011 scores were statistically significantly different.