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State Releases Score Card For Schools And Districts

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Just over half of Connecticut’s schools met their achievement targets under a state education department scorecard that rates every school and district.

The new performance index, which debuted last year, grades schools and districts with a single number based on the Connecticut Mastery and Academic Performance tests and the school’s high school graduation rate.

Education Commissioner Stefan Pryor said this year is the first that the new accountability system has been in full operation, allowing parents in all districts to easily get a snapshot of their child’s school’s performance.

The ultimate target for all schools is a performance index score of at least 88 on a scale of zero to a hundred, but each school has an incremental target depending on how well students performed in previous schools years.

“Our accountability system is designed both to recognize the progress our schools are making and to reveal the challenges where they exist,” Pryor said. “These reports demonstrate that there are bright spots and best practices as well as areas in need of review and improvement in districts and schools across the state.”

Besides providing a school performance index for each school and a district performance index, the new accountability system classifies schools in a five tier system ranging from “excelling” at the top to “turnaround” at the bottom.

How a school is categorized depends on a mix of factors including students’ performance on standardized tests, high school graduation rates and the improvement in test scores.

Also taken into account is the performance of students who are black, Hispanic, disabled, learning to speak English or eligible for free and reduced price lunch. If the achievement gap between these students and the school’s performance index is too wide — more than 10 points — a school is dropped down a level in its classification.

Many of the 282 schools with performance indexes that are 88 or better were rated “progressing” — one level down from “excelling” — because of this gap in achievement.

In general, the index and classification system reveals results that might be expected with more affluent suburban school districts receiving index scores in the eighties and nineties and the numbers from state’s biggest cities tending to be in the forties, fifties and sixties.

The district performance index in Avon, for example, was 93.8 percent. In addition, all of the district’s school were ranked in the top categories — “excelling” or “progressing.”

In Hartford, where efforts are underway to turn around low performing schools, the district performance index was 58.1 and the majority of the schools in the district were placed in the lower categories.

But Pryor emphasized there are “bright spots” in troubled districts. For instance, he said 30 percent of the schools in the 10 lowest performing districts were classified in the top three categories as excelling, progressing or transitioning.

Those schools include the House of Arts and Letters and Science (HALS) Academy in New Britain, where the school performance index was 97.3, though the district performance index is in the forties.

In its analysis, the state also named 73 schools worthy of distinction for various reasons including the highest overall performance; the most improved scores; and schools with the highest performers in certain socioeconomic and other groups. Those groupings include students who are black, Hispanic, learning English, have disabilities, or qualify for a free or reduced price lunch.

In that latter category, W. F. Kaynor Technical High School in Waterbury won the distinction award for its high performing black students, while Eastern Middle School in Greenwich won distinction for the achievement of its students learning English as a second language.

Another category that is not part of the tiered system identifies schools — called “focus schools” — where students who are black or Hispanic or low-income are performing particularly poorly. Last year 55 schools were named to this category; this year 13 of those schools have improved enough to be dropped from the classification.

John B. Stanton School in Norwich is one of those schools that is no longer in the “focus” category. Norwich Superintendent Abby I. Dolliver said the school had been named a focus school because of poor scores by black students.

Last year, Dolliver, said the district invested more than $1 million — available to the district through a state program for troubled schools — to lengthen the school day and to hire retired teachers and others to work in small groups with students who needed extra help.

Dolliver said the new accountability system didn’t really tell her anything she didn’t already know. However, she said, “The thing that it does for us in this case is to really make us know that the work we are doing is making a difference.”

Pryor said the new “homegrown” system — using both the school performance index and the classification system — is far better than the prior system used under the No Child Left Behind program.

Under that system, he said, a school’s progress was based only on a single element of data: the percentage of students who reached the proficiency level on each of the state’s standardized test.

“All of the energy was devoted to moving students across the proficiency line,” Pryor said.

The new accountability system measures progress at all points along the scale, so that if a low-performing student improves a score, but doesn’t reach target levels, that improvement is reflected in the school’s rating.

Mary Yakamowski, director of assessment for UConn’s Neag School of Education, said the new system is “a thousand percent better” than No Child Left Behind.

“This system allows you to be recognized when you move students up,” Yakamowski rather than just focusing on the attainment of proficiency. She also feels the new system is far more accessible to parents who now can look for a single number that reflects school progress, rather than have to sift through multiple test scores.

Mark Benigni, superintendent of Meriden and co-chairman of the Connecticut Association of Urban Superintendents, said the new accountability system is useful “as a data source to guide our improvement.”

The district is focusing more resources this year on one of its low-performing schools, John Barry Elementary School, extending the school day there by 100 minutes and adding staff to help improve reading, writing and math skills.

“We take those targets seriously and we work hard to meet them,” Benigni said, “but at the end of the day we never use one test as the whole judgment of our school or of our school system.”

Jonathan Plucker, a professor at the Neag school, said that almost every state in the country is tinkering with its accountability system. The test of whether a system works well, he said, is whether it leads to school improvement.

By Kathleen Megan, Hartford Courant.

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