Standardized math and reading scores in Connecticut still significantly lag pre-pandemic levels, and schools are continuing to cope with high rates of chronic absenteeism, according to data released by the state Department of Education on Monday. State officials said that the largest drop, evident in 11th-graders, suggested the particular challenge of matriculating into middle school and high school during the pandemic.
Data from 2022-23 tests shows that the percentage of students in grades 3-8 reading at grade level dropped from 55.7 percent in 2018-19 to 48.5 percent last year. The percent of students at grade level in mathematics dropped from 48.1 percent in 2018-19 to 40 percent in 2021-22, before rising slightly last year to 42.5 percent.
The largest drops overall happened for juniors in high school — according to the data, the number of students meeting state standards for English on the SATs dropped by 9.2 percent, to just over half, since the pandemic hit. The number of students meeting state standards for math dropped 6.5 percent in the same timeframe.
Ajit Gopalakrishnan, chief performance officer for the state Department of Education, pointed out that 11th graders last year were in 8th grade when the pandemic hit — right at a critical transition period from middle school to high school. He suggested that students transitioning from elementary to middle school or middle school to high school during the pandemic struggled with a loss of continuity — particularly in subjects like math, with one year building directly on the next.
Gopalakrishnan said this is apparent not only in SAT scores, but also in the rates of students who are on-track to graduate from high school.
“Course failures in ninth grade have increased because it’s more challenging for students to keep up with that content,” said Gopalakrishnan.
According to the data, 44 of the districts are exceeding pre-pandemic scores in math, 65 are exceeding pre-pandemic scores in science and 22 are exceeding pre-pandemic scores in reading.
Gopalarkrishnan said the level of growth in attainment did not clearly correlate with whether a district was wealthy or lower-income. Instead, he suggested, improvements in student performance depended on varying strategies employed by school districts, particularly regarding changes to the curricula.
Officials at the state Department of Education said that the declines in English Language Arts scores are “under investigation.”
Asked if the state would consider a high-dosage tutoring program in English Language Arts — similar to what the state has implemented for middle school mathematics — Gopalakrishnan said the state had made improvements to reading instruction and curricula, but that more would be done if necessary.
Chief Academic Officer Irene Parisi mentioned the state’s Science of Reading Masterclass, a series of events and training offered to some local districts to teach about best practices in teaching students how to read. She said the department invested $9 million in federal relief funds in the efforts to help local districts develop their own “literacy teams” to build “evidence-based” practices for teaching reading.
Carly Fortin, Chief Academic Officer for Bristol Public Schools, said that this year, her district reported the highest percentage of third graders reaching state standards for math and reading since the standardized testing began in 2015-16. She said Bristol had revised its math and reading curriculum for elementary students using “science of reading” principles.
“Every month, every day, every lesson matters,” said Fortin. “These third graders only had one kindergarten year and one first grade year.”
Chronic absenteeism rates, while lower than last year, also remain well above pre-pandemic levels. About 20 percent of students, or 1 in 5, missed at least 18 days of school last year, compared with 23.7 percent the year before.
Education Commissioner Charlene Russell-Tucker said during an informational session on Monday that the drop in chronic absenteeism meant that 18,000 more students were regularly attending school last year compared to 2021. 100,000 students were chronically absent.
But she praised the success of the department’s Learner Engagement and Attendance Program, or LEAP, and said that 12 of the 14 school districts where the LEAP program was implemented had reported a drop in chronic absenteeism rates.
Kari Sullivan Custer, an education consultant on chronic absence and attendance, discussed a survey by the department of 5,000 families with students in grades K-12. She said the number one reason families kept children home was illness, followed by mental health and anxiety. She said that Spanish-speaking families sometimes felt unable to connect with someone who speaks their language.
“Sometimes it’s a lack of interest in the subject matter or just a lack of engagement with peers or feeling like they don’t belong. And, often, transportation issues,” Sullivan Custer said.
According to the survey results, parents voiced the crucial importance of making sure their children were part of the school community, whether through clubs and sports, or connecting with a trusted adult at school.
“At the end of the day, it’s about relationships. It’s about making families and students feel welcome,” she said.
Melinda Smith, superintendent of Thompson Public Schools, said the district still struggled with chronic absenteeism at the high-school level. She said the district was endeavoring to offer classes that interest students, including a class on American music, a culinary arts pathway and a pathway to earn CNA certification.
“Two of our most chronically absent students have signed up for that certification,” she said.
Commissioner Charlene Russell-Tucker called improvements in student attendance and scores very encouraging, and said that the state needed to continue to use the data to guide its efforts.
“The improvements in chronic absenteeism, as well as math and science scores should encourage us to strengthen our collective resolve and to continue working together intensively to re-engage all students in education,” said Russell-Tucker.
Gopalakrishnan acknowledged that there was more that had to be done.
During the presentation, he referenced a graph showing changes in math, science and reading scores from 2018-19 through 2022-23.
“What you’ll see across all three subjects is that achievement still lags pre-pandemic levels, and that is the work ahead of all of us,” he said.
This story has been edited to clarify a statement by Gopalakrishnan