standardized tests Gap persists, but signs of growth

September 15, 2018

GREENWICH — Greenwich Public School students across the district reached a new high on a state-mandated standardized test for English and math, according to data from the state Department of Education.

A total of 78 percent of the third- through eighth-graders who took the Smarter Balanced Assessment in the spring met or exceeded state expectations in English, and 71.4 percent did so in math. Math performance has made steady gains since the new test debuted in 2015, while English performance reclaimed lost ground this year.

But while school officials were pleased with the overall results, the numbers continued to reveal a problem common to past assessments: Greenwich, like most diverse school districts in the nation, continues to show a persistent achievement gap among schools that breaks down largely on economic and racial lines.

For example, 83 percent of Eastern Middle School students hit or exceeded the state’s proficiency mark in math, compared with 56 percent at Western. The gap was less stark, but still present, in English.

Among elementary schools, 90 percent of Riverside students met or exceeded state standards in English, compared with 47 percent at Hamilton Avenue, 60 percent at Julian Curtiss and 66 percent at New Lebanon. In math, North Mianus and North Street students led with 86 percent hitting state benchmarks, compared with 47 percent at Hamilton Avenue, 47 at New Lebanon and 59 at Julian Curtiss.


But the SBA — unlike previous incarnations of standardized testing — does not stop there. State education officials refer to measurement of student performance on the test as a “snapshot” in time, letting schools know how well students are mastering the Common Core standards adopted by the state.

The SBA adds another metric of student performance other tests did not have — which follows each child’s performance from one grade level to the next. To measure growth, the state sets performance benchmarks for each child every year.

State officials call this measurement the “golden standard” — because, according to those officials, it better measures whether or not schools are helping kids learn. It reveals some bright spots among Greenwich schools with the largest populations of students who typically score lower on tests — those using special education services, learning English or qualifying for free or reduced-price lunch.

The growth model reshuffles somewhat how Greenwich schools normally stack up. Western, in particular shows strong student growth, outpacing the other middle schools in both English and math.

“Growth is a much fairer system,” Western Middle School Principal Gordon Beinstein said. “It’s nice to show a growth measure, which shows the work we’re doing is making an impact.”

Western students tested in the spring on average reached 74 percent of their target benchmarks in both English and math. Overall, Greenwich students on average reached 71 percent of their goals in English and 71 percent of their math goals.

And graduating Western eighth-graders showed steady improvement in both achievement and growth all the way through middle school. As sixth-graders, 61 percent of them met or exceeded standards for English. As seventh-graders, 65 percent did so. By eighth grade, 76 percent met or exceeded standards. Each year, the average growth students displayed increased as well.

The growth rates at the elementary schools typically on the short side of the achievement gap were mixed. But there, too, were signs of progress.

New Lebanon fifth-graders, now in their first year of middle school, achieved an average of 91 percent and 92 percent of their goals in English and math, respectively. And while the average year-to-year growth mark at the school remained flat in math, it soared in English, from 54 percent to 69 percent.

At Julian Curtiss and Hamilton Avenue, both schools saw a sharp drop-off in the average growth students made in math. In English, the student growth-rate ticked up at Julian Curtiss and spiked at Hamilton Avenue.

Administrators said it is difficult to compare growth rates from one school to another, because the targets set for students can differ greatly.

“You can’t compare Riverside and Hamilton Avenue,” district research manager Jennifer Lau said. “A school like Hamilton Avenue, which has fewer children at proficiency, their target for growth is so much higher than at Riverside.”

New Lebanon Principal Barbara Riccio was impressed with students’ growth, but, she said, they have further to go because they’ve started with lower scores.

“Reasonable growth isn’t what they need, they need to grow more,” she said.

Closing the gap

Following the release of the data, some of which Hamilton Avenue Interim Principal John Grasso admitted was “not very good,” the principal met with teachers to discuss ways to improve scores.

Grasso said he will examine how teachers administer STAR tests, given periodically and resembling the SBA tests. And his school will continue to work on closing the gap at home, including by hosting a resource fair that connects parents with services the community provides.

Riccio said her teachers diagnose students before starting a new unit to see what standards they missed and why. Problems can be academic, but often there are other factors at work, such as difficulties learning English, traumatic home situations and poverty.

“You’re not going to go forward unless the holes are filled,” she said.

Core teachers will work more closely with specialty teachers (music, art, literacy and physical education) to make sure lessons inside and outside the classroom reflect each other and the needs of individual children, she said.

”We’re hoping that that kind of fine-level calibration is going to make a difference,” she said.

Beinstein said closing the achievement gap starts with teachers boosting their students’ confidence and holding them to higher standards.

“Sometimes it’s an attitude, sometimes it’s a skill set,” he said.

At Western, Beinstein said a set of five core teachers stay with a group of 100 kids over the three years. The school also has initiated programs such as pairing students who need a mentor with an officer from the Greenwich Police Department, and having bilingual staff members lead workshops for Spanish speakers on how to parent children in American public schools.

For the children that need to grow more to reach proficiency, the school has intervention classes.

But Beinstein said any growth story begins with teachers, who work to forge connections to students.

“We spend a lot of time building relationships because kids work for staff,” he said. “They don’t work for grades or test scores.”

Grasso takes the same approach, and said a recent survey his students took showed the strategy was working.

“Eighty percent of kids who took the survey said they felt that someone really cared about them in school,” he said. “That’s always been very important to me.”

For some students, stable connections with adults are few.

“The students who are able to have a meaningful relationship with an adult are able to move forward, but if you don’t have that meaningful relationship, it’s extremely hard,” said Deputy Superintendent Elizabeth Ann Carabillo.

Both Grasso and Beinstein have restructured their staff over the years, hiring candidates who buy into the mission of relationship-building.

“We really need that total commitment,” Grasso said.

Since he arrived at Western, Beinstein has hired about 70 percent of his current staff through natural turnover, retirements and enrollment increases.

“That’s why we’re making the growth we’re making,” he said. “We have the right people in place so the kids are willing to take risks.”

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