By Kathy Megan
HARTFORD — Connecticut’s high school seniors scored the highest in reading among 13 states and also narrowed the state’s achievement gap between black and white students, according to a test known as “the nation’s report card.”
“It’s the first time in recent history … that we’ve seen a statistically significant gap closure” between black and white students, said state Education Commissioner Stefan Pryor. “We are enormously proud of that accomplishment.”
Pryor said that it was also the first time on a National Assessment of Educational Progress test, or NAEP, that Connecticut has ranked “No. 1 free and clear” in a subject area: On reading it outperformed the other 12 states, including Massachusetts, New Hampshire and New Jersey.
“Connecticut has not previously stood at the top as a solo number in its own category,” Pryor said, adding that the state’s 12th-graders’ reading score was, statistically speaking, significantly higher than those of all the other states.
“I won’t name any of those states, such as Massachusetts, that are in fact lagging Connecticut,” Pryor said, with a bit of glee.
Connecticut has consistently trailed Massachusetts, he said. “On every measure in memory, Massachusetts has outscored us.”
Connecticut’s 12th-graders also scored in the top tier of four states on the math test, and Connecticut and Arkansas were the only two states to improve both reading and math scores since 2009, when the test was last administered.
“Arkansas and Connecticut are definitely the big winners here,” said Samantha Burg, a statistician for the National Center for Education Statistics.
Jeffrey Villar, executive director of the Connecticut Council for Education Reform, said that the test scores were “certainly good news,” but “I would be cautious. This is one assessment. … It is early and I certainly would want to see a continued pattern of progress before I declare victory.”
The news was not nearly so good for most of the other states. Nationally, the 12th-graders averaged about the same for the 2013 test as for the one in 2009, and the achievement gap between black and white students on the reading test widened slightly.
Pryor, who announced the scores at a State Board of Education meeting Wednesday, said, “We are very proud of the fact that while the nation is stagnant this year, as pertains to 12th-grade NAEP scores, Connecticut is on the rise.”
Still, the achievement gap between white students and black and other minority students in Connecticut remains wide.
“We still have a lot of work to do,” Pryor said. “Our achievement gaps remain too large, even when we are performing at high levels in terms of aggregate performance.”
A statement from Pryor’s office noted that “in every area of comparison among racial and economic comparisons, there are participating states (often many) with smaller achievement gaps than Connecticut.”
The test showed that 58 percent of white Connecticut students performed at or above the proficient level on the reading test, compared with 26 percent of black students and 26 percent of Hispanic students. In math, 40 percent of white students were at or above proficient, compared with 6 percent of black students and 12 percent of Hispanic students.
Pryor attributed Connecticut’s performance to the increased “investment and commitment” to public schools in recent years. He noted the state’s adoption of new academic standards, which he said are more rigorous.
“The state committed itself to the Common Core State Standards in 2010,” Pryor said. “Our districts and schools have been ramping up ever since.”
In the past three years, Pryor said, the state also has invested nearly $150 million in the state’s lowest-performing school districts.
Gov. Dannel P. Malloy stopped by the meeting to celebrate the scores: “Today we can announce that Connecticut is No. 1. Our 12th-graders are outperforming our peer states in reading. We are among the top tier in math. … We often talk about what needs to be done, but this is a milestone we should maybe take 30 seconds and celebrate, and then get back to work.”
Malloy said he also wanted to “highlight the significant reduction” in the achievement gap between black and white students on the reading test.
“This validates that our reform efforts are on the right track, as bumpy and as difficult as they are,” Malloy said of the tests. “We are making significant differences in Connecticut as verified by these 12th-grade scores.”
Overall in Connecticut, one in three students performed at the proficient level or better on the math test, while half the students performed at proficient or better on the reading test.
On the reading test, which is graded on a scale of zero to 500, Connecticut students averaged 292 in 2009, compared with 299 in 2013 — a score that is 12 points higher than the national average. In 2009, the gap between black students’ scores and white students’ was 36 points. This year the gap was 9 points smaller, at 27 points.
On the math test, which is graded on a scale of zero to 300, Connecticut students averaged 156 in 2009 and climbed to 160 in 2013, compared with the national average of 152. The performance gap of 31 points between white and black students in 2013 was not significantly different from the 33-point gap in 2009.
The performance gap between white and Hispanic students did not change significantly in the four-year period.
Burg, the statistician, said it might be that Connecticut students improved on the math test because the percentage of students taking calculus has increased from 18 percent in 2009 to 24 percent in 2013.
NAEP administered the test in January 2013 in Connecticut, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Arkansas, Florida, Idaho, Illinois, Iowa, Michigan, New Jersey, South Dakota, Tennessee and West Virginia.
About 92,000 students participated from public and private schools, although the rate of private school participation was too low to be reported separately.
Between January and March, 2,400 students took the math test and 2,500 students took the reading test at more than 100 Connecticut high schools in 84 school districts. The students and schools were chosen to be demographically representative of the state’s entire school population, NAEP officials said.
During a short session with reporters, Malloy was asked if there was any way to ascertain that the reforms in recent years were related to the higher test scores.
“Let me assure you, if these scores went down, if the achievement gap had gotten wider, you wouldn’t be asking that question,” Malloy said.
For years, he said, state officials have been looking at test scores that haven’t shown any real progress in closing the achievement gap.
Malloy said it’s impossible to overstate the significance of the 9-point narrowing of the state’s achievement gap between black and white students in reading.
“I think it’s all because of the things that we’ve done over a number of years, but I also think most earnestly in the last few,” Malloy said.
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