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New Regulations Blamed for Drop in CMT Reading

MERIDEN School leaders here and in surrounding towns reacted calmly to tumbling reading scores on the Connecticut Mastery Test, blaming much of the decline on new requirements that include special education students and those learning English as a second language.

The number of students reaching state goals in reading hit five-year lows among fourth-, sixth- and eighth-graders in Meriden, Wallingford and Southington; and Cheshire saw lows for its fourth- and sixth-graders.

Statewide, scores declined three points on average from 2002 to 2004 in fourth-grade math and in reading in all three grades, while writing scores held steady or increased slightly.

In Meriden, only 33 percent of fourth-graders met state goals, one of the lowest percentages in the state, yet School Superintendent Mary Noonan Cortright said statistics don't give the entire picture.

"We're not pleased with it, but those students who are consistently in the Meriden school system have done fairly well," Cortright said. "When you compare scores one year to the next, you're comparing different students."

Jerome Belair, assistant superintendent in Southington, made a similar point about the test, which is given yearly to students in grades four, six and eight.

"Our current sixth-graders improved in two areas compared to their fourth-grade scores," Belair said. "We are in the process of identifying the eighth-grade kids who were here with us in sixth grade."

Belair said participation by special education students increased from about 71 percent to 100 percent in grade four and 81 to 99 percent in grade six from last year. The change was required by the federal No Child Left Behind Act, which seeks to test disabled students and English language learners at their grade level, not necessarily their instructional level. State and many local officials have opposed the change.

Wallingford School Superintendent Kenneth V. Henrici said the requirements "clearly" impacted the scores because "things are being done differently" than in the past. His district is awaiting annual progress requirements from the state before making changes, but has already identified two groups at Dag Hammarskjold Middle School that may require extra assistance: free and reduced lunch and special education students.

"We're waiting to get more details from the state," Henrici said. "We do have some areas of concern, but across the board we've met or exceeded scores of towns in our educational reference group and we've seen some significant jumps."

Most towns are taking steps to meet the increasingly demanding goals of No Child Left Behind and to prepare for the new generation of CMTs that will be given to all students in grades three through eight starting next year.

Meriden, Wallingford and Southington are using different tests throughout the year to assess progress and tailor their curriculums to meet students' needs.

"Through our research and evaluation specialist, we are giving teachers at the elementary and middle schools mini math and writing assessments," Cortright said. The tests are "CMT-like in nature," but the results come back in three to five days, not halfway through the school year.

Meriden is also working to align its curriculum so that the same types of skills are taught at the same time of year at each of the city's elementary schools. Cortright said the change would help children who move between schools. "We have a very transient population," she said.

Southington implemented a CMT improvement plan this year, which added literacy and math specialists in its schools, and Wallingford has devised special tests that diagnose individual students' reading abilities.

Although testing is set to increase next year, the state maintains more isn't necessarily better. With about $8 million budgeted for the new tests, officials are looking into alternative uses for the money.

"Our position is it's important to look at the same group of students through the years," said Henry Garcia, communications director for the state Department of Education. "We're saying you could do better with less testing and still focus on other programs like stronger early childhood education."


— Adam Wittenberg


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