IN THE REGION — Across southeastern Connecticut, on average about 50 percent of students meet or exceed expectations on the Math SAT, and 73 percent meet or exceed expectations on the English Language Arts — tests used to judge school district performance statewide since 2016.
New London and Lyme-Old Lyme Schools occupy opposite ends of the spectrum, not only for the region, but for the state.
In New London, just 31.5 percent of students met or exceeded expectations on the English SAT and only 16.3 percent in math. In Lyme and Old Lyme those numbers were 85.9 and 75 percent respectively, according to the Connecticut Department of Education.
The school districts also occupy opposite ends of the spectrum in terms of school spending per pupil according to 2017-2018 data provided by the Connecticut School Finance Project. Lyme-Old Lyme spends $21,589 per student per year, second in the region only to Westbrook, which spends $24,111. By comparison, New London spends $16,524 per pupil per year. In the state, this places New London in the bottom third of spending, with several of Connecticut’s more densely populated centers including Danbury, New Britain, Bridgeport and Manchester.
“Resources do make a difference, but it is complex. Are resources being used in the right way? And is that the best way to get high SAT scores?” asked Sarah Woulfin, associate professor in the Department of Educational Leadership in the Neag School of Education at the University of Connecticut. “We might see about $16,000 being spent in New London, but if a third or a half of that is going to bringing students up to speed or dealing with high staff turnover, there is actually a more dire gap in spending when compared with Lyme and Old Lyme.”
New London also has one of the highest percentages of English language learners in the state, making up 22 percent of the population in 2015, according to the State Department of Education. Only 3.1 percent of English Language Learners met or exceeded expectations on the English test and just 2.9 percent on the math, according to the statewide SAT results. In addition, 28.3 percent of New London’s population falls below the poverty line.
These factors taken together — a high percentage of non-native English speakers, families in poverty and a lack of school district resources — help in part explain the drastic difference in scores for districts less than 15 miles apart.
This disparity is patterned across the state. Fairfield County had seven of the top ten achieving school districts in the state, but within it Bridgeport had just 12.6 percent of its students meet or exceed expectations in math and just 30.1 percent in English.
According to Woulfin, these disparities in high-school-level performance are begin much earlier.
“The achievement gaps evident in elementary, middle and high schools are starting, and being formed, even before kindergarten,” Woulfin said. “We need to be looking at pre-k, daycares and brokering between the school systems, healthcare and home life. Some of the dollars spent per kid need to be broader than just education to make up the difference.”
Not every low-achieving school district falls into the bottom third in terms of per-pupil spending, but none of the top ten scoring districts fall into that category, and eight of them spend more than $20,000 per student.
That difference becomes even more stark when school districts, like Lyme-Old Lyme, offer specific classes focused on SAT preparation. The preparation in Lyme-Old Lyme has likely helped place the school district among the top 10 in the state, the only district east of the Connecticut River to make that list.
Other districts – like Regional School District 17 in Killingworth and Haddam – fall somewhere in the middle in test results.
“Our district has had a very intense focus on instructional efficacy and financial efficiency over the last decade and I believe it has produced a very high return on investment in terms of student achievement and the related financial cost to our community,” said Howard Thiery, the superintendent of schools for Region 17,
Region 17 spent $17,805 per pupil according to the Connecticut School Finance Project and had 81.3 percent of their students meet or exceed expectations in English and 56.9 percent in math, according to the State Department of Education.
A lag in math performance
Nearly every school district in southeastern Connecticut, except New London, on average tested above the SAT college and career readiness benchmark in English, but only four districts met that benchmark in math: East Lyme, Haddam and Killingworth, Lyme-Old Lyme and Stonington.
A similar pattern exists across Connecticut. Student performance in math substantially lags behind scores in English, with 60 percent of students meeting or exceeding expectations in English and only 41 percent in math, according to the State Department of Education.
“This is a national trend,” Woulfin said. “Some of the shifts required by Common Core with regards to math have left teachers struggling. One idea is that because it required such a big leap in terms of math instruction, teachers in school have been playing catch up to make all those shifts.”
The Common Core State Standards Initiative began in 2010 with detailed guidance on subject competence for each year between kindergarten and high school.