On average, just 45 percent of third- through eighth-grade students met individual growth targets on the state’s Smarter Balanced standardized tests during the spring of 2019. In other words less than half of the students are making adequate strides in education this year, explained Ajit Gopalakrishnan, the chief performance officer for the State Department of Education.
In Essex, however, the picture is very different. Although the district — which ranks 12th in the state in English Language Arts testing, and 26th in math — may not be the top performing school in the state or region, almost 90 percent of students in the district met individual goals in math and nearly 85 percent in English. That ranks Essex second in the state, and first in the region, in terms of growth in both Math and English.
“The growth target measures students against themselves from one year to the next,” said Gopalakrishnan. “There are districts that are not the highest achieving schools, but are meeting some of their growth targets while higher achieving schools are not. If we grow our kids then achievement will improve and the gaps will close. This is the best assessment to measure our students.”
The Smarter Balanced standardized testing began in 2015-16, but the Common Core standards that are being tested were implemented in 2010, the year current eighth graders started school. Therefore, this year is the first year where every student tested has been exposed to common core since they started kindergarten.
In terms of overall achievement, 82 percent of students in Essex schools meet or exceed expectations in English language testing and 72.1 in math. This still ranks Essex behind Lyme-Old Lyme Schools, Westbrook and Old Saybrook in both math and English.
But for Essex, these gains in achievement suggest a remarkable jump, especially in mathematics, where 72.1 percent of students met or exceeded expectations in 2018-9 compared to just 58.6 percent in 2017-8.
There is no way to achieve this type of increase just by chance, said Ajit Gopalakrishnan the Chief Performance Officer for the State Department of Education.
“There are no shortcuts to improving academic learning. Ultimately students need to engage with that material and work with that material,” Gopalakrishnan said. “The instructional core is where that magic happens. Our teachers need all the support, resources and materials they can get.”
Across the region
Essex is not the only town in the region – or the state – to see such a dramatic jump in growth from the 2017-18 to the 2018-19 school year. In math, both Chester and Old Saybrook saw more than a 20 percent jump in students meeting or exceeding their goal as well.
“The idea behind the growth target is no matter what the student achieved last year, they can improve greatly and that is measurable even if they do not make it into the meet or exceed expectations category,” Gopalakrishnan explained.
For districts that consistently perform below the state average — like New London — being able to consider growth from year to year can provide useful information not apparent in overall numbers. For example, even if just 23 percent of students in New London met or exceeded expectations in math, 49.3 percent met the individual growth target — that growth exceeds the average across the state.
Across the state
Of 231,000 students participating in the testing statewide, 55.7 percent met or exceeded expectations in English, while 48.1 percent met or exceeded expectations in math.
But while English scores have remained relatively stable, math scores continued an upward trend from the first year of testing in 2015-6 — improving 1.3 percent from the previous year, and 4.1 percent from than three years ago.
Given consistently low performance on SAT math tests by high schoolers across Connecticut, Gopalakrishnan said that these improvements among younger students offer promise.
“These are students who are coming into middle school and have been exposed to the common core standards since they began making these very promising results for our curriculum,” Gopalakrishnan said.
Improved scores for high-needs students
For the state, the most promising outcome of this year’s round of testing was a significant jump in performance by high-needs students, which include English learners, special needs students and students receiving free or reduced lunch. These students’ scores improved by 3.6 percent in English compared to scores showing just a 0.1 percent improvement overall. In math, scores for high-needs students increased by 6.8 percent compared with a 4.1 percent improvement overall.
“These increases for our high needs students is more evidence that our students can do this, and that the achievement gap can close,” Gopalakrishnan said.
To continue or achieve this type of growth, Gopalakrishnan said that school districts need to align school instruction and materials with the Common Core standard.
“The towns that are doing well fully understand what the standards are and know what needs to be covered across grades and within the grades,” Gopalakrishnan said. “Going forward the commissioner has a big focus on improving math. It’s a question of how do you structure middle school math instruction and how do you sequence mathematics in middle school.”
For now, the state has no plans to change the Smarter Balanced testing from grades 3 through 8.