OLD SAYBROOK — A significant decline in mathematics proficiency among local students in fourth through eighth grades has raised concerns about the district’s math curriculum, and the need to offer help to disadvantaged students.
According to state data, the percentage of students’ growth targets being achieved — or the amount of new information a student is expected to learn in a given school year — dropped in mathematics from about 76 percent in 2021-22 to 58 percent last year.
That drop was even larger among the district’s high-needs students — children who come from low-income families, have disabilities or are learning English. Last year, these students only met half of their growth targets for math.
“We’re not necessarily closing that gap between how all of our students are performing in comparison to how our high-needs students are performing,” Khary Fletcher, the district’s director of curriculum, instruction and assessment, told the Board of Education at a December meeting.
Schools Superintendent Jan Perruccio noted that the district had changed mathematics programs at the elementary and middle schools about six years ago, leading to a large increase in student growth in the 2018-19 school year. Now, they are seeing a decline.
“So it begs the question — is there something else going on that is not the program, or does the program no longer meet the demographics that we have?” Perruccio asked.
Perruccio said the district had seen an increase in high-needs students in recent years.
“That is a group that we need to target to help improve their performance, because they are a bigger percentage of our population,” she said.
Fletcher said the district has dealt in the past with concerns about math achievement with coaching and creating a new curriculum. He said the district now needed to reexamine that curriculum and how teachers were implementing it.
Board of Education members voiced concerns about the data, noting the importance of a strong foundation in mathematics before students reach high school.
Perruccio said the 2018-19 year was “an unusual year” where performance increased dramatically, making the drop in subsequent years appear precipitous. But she also said the district was taking steps to look at changes that could be made.
“We are examining the math scores at each grade level to look into specific issues such as instructional methodology [which has not changed significantly since before COVID] student absenteeism caused by quarantining requirements and work that needs to be done to address the learning of high needs students,” Perruccio told CT Examiner.
The district also reported challenges in other areas, including English proficiency, absenteeism and the number of students going directly to college.
The number of English language learners considered proficient in reading English dropped from 73 to 58 percent, though Perruccio noted that the district also reported the second-largest increase in the percentage of enrolled non-English speaking students in the state.
While more students in the district were taking college-level and AP courses, the percentage of students going directly from high school to college dropped from 80 to 70 percent, the data showed. But, according to Perruccio, this may be the result of a change in mindset and goals.
“There’s a shift. And there are some students saying, ‘I’m taking a gap year.’ ‘I’m going to get a job for a while.’ ‘I’m going to get a job with a company and they’re going to pay for me to go to school,’” she said. “So … I don’t necessarily think this is a bad trend unless we find out our students aren’t going because they can’t afford it, they don’t have any interest, they don’t know what they want to do.”
Chronic absenteeism also rose across the district, from 12 to 13 percent, but still below the state average of 20 percent. Fletcher said the district was reaching out to families about how important it is for students to attend school.
Perruccio said the district was still encouraging students with flu-like symptoms to stay home from school, but that there appeared to be a shift in people’s attitudes toward taking time off from school or work.
“There does seem to be a different attitude about attendance, at anything,” she said.
“I think there’s, anecdotally, more behavior of taking kids out of school to do different things. And I’m hearing from other employers, even outside of education, that they are experiencing this amongst employees as well.”