State: School improvement stymied by year-to-year growth drop
HARTFORD — The state’s third annual attempt to boil academic success to a single number shows progress being made in the college readiness arena but on the reading, math and science front, not so much.
Nearly three quarters of districts and charter schools statewide — 146 out of 201 — scored worse on this year’s index than they did a year ago.
Individual student improvement over time — something the state pushed to include in its Next Generation Accountability system — is what in many cases held schools and school districts from seeing overall improvement.
Released Friday by the State Department of Education, the state’s grade, or index, remains flat, rising one tenth of one percent to 73.2 points in 2016-17.
Each school and district also earned an index number based on the same compilation of 12 indicators. Included are not only scores on state standardized tests but absentee rates, graduation rates, access to arts and physical fitness.
What is measured is how well schools are living up to goals set for them by the state.
Locally, Region 9 was the only district to see an increase, from 84 to 86.4 percent.
School system scores
New Milford, Ridgefield, Brookfield and Bethel each saw their scores decline from 2015-16 to 2016-17, but stayed above the state average. New Fairfield, Redding and Region 12 also remained above the state average, but saw larger declines. Each saw their scores drop by at least 4 percent.
In New Milford, Superintendent Joshua Smith said he was happy to see the district at or above the state average in the majority of criteria. He specifically pointed out that the district’s 97.2 percent graduation rate exceeds the state average by almost 10 percent.
“We have worked hard as a district to increase access to college-level courses and open enrollment to Advanced Places courses that really has influenced our college and career readiness,” Smith said. “We really started working as early as ninth grade in areas of math and language arts to make sure they’re succeeding and can graduate on time.”
Danbury fell a few points below the state’s 73.2 grade, dropping from 72.6 percent in 2015-16 to 70.6 percent in 2016-17. Superintendent Sal Pascarella said he is still fine with the score “from a numbers standpoint,” since it’s within 2 percent of the state average, but he still thinks the numbers in some ways aren’t an accurate reflection of the district.
He said he has advocated for the state to change the criteria to more accurately reflect programs like Danbury’s Alternative Center for Excellence, an alternative high school for at-risk students.
“ACE kids are making gains and yet the numbers are so low it looks as though they’re not making progress,” Pascarella said. “(Comparing them) to state mainstream students that are on graduation paths in a normal program, those are apples and oranges.”
Pascarella added that he is happy to see the district’s physical education scores improve and a drop in its chronic absences. He said the number of students taking college-level or Advanced Placement courses has increased, but he plans to “drill down on that more” to improve it further.
In its index reporting, the state makes note of schools that improve, show growth or just have overall high numbers. A list of 124 Schools of Distinction were reported including a dozen locally.
Eight elementary schools from the Danbury area made the 2016-17 list, including three in Danbury, two in Ridgefield, two in Bethel and Redding Elementary School.
In addition, 16 schools on a watch list for poor performance gained enough ground to leave the list. One of them was the BioTech School that is part of Bridgeport’s Fairchild Wheeler Magnet Campus.
Ajit Gopalakrishnan, chief performance officer for the state’s Department of Education, said the state was pleased that more students are taking Advanced Placement courses and tests. All juniors now take the SAT as their state assessment.
“Overall, some indicators are showing positive movement and some are not,” Gopalakrishnan said. “We know there some areas where we have a lot of work to do.”
On the positive side was a 3.6 percent jump in the number of high-needs students — English language learners, students with disabilities or from low income families — who graduated in six years or fewer.
Physical fitness levels also jumped 35 percent. The state had no explanation as to why.
On the downside was some backsliding on the percentage of growth, or how well underperforming students do from one year to the next in matching state averages. In language arts, the growth slipped 8.5 percent and in math, 3.7 percent.
Growth carries the largest weight in the index and in many cases is what caused many school districts to decline, Gopalakrishnan said.
In measuring growth, the district excludes students who relocate to new districts — 2,194 between the two years — so that the same students are being compared one year with the next.
Also down were science scores. The index dropped nearly 3 points statewide.
The federal government requires the state to compile the index and use the information to help schools to better education their children.