More Than Half of Connecticut School Districts Landed on the NCLB Hit List
More than half the state's 166 public school districts, including high-performing systems from West Hartford to Greenwich, landed on an academic warning list Wednesday.
The inclusion of some of Connecticut's strongest school systems caught some educators by surprise and was a sign of the stringent standards under President Bush's school reform law, the No Child Left Behind Act.
"We're going to have a black eye. Is that what Congress intended?" said West Hartford Board of Education member Tom Fiorentino, who called the district's inclusion on the list "ridiculous."
Some districts made the list because a single category of children, such as special education students, non-English speaking children or members of minority groups, failed to make adequate progress on reading or mathematics tests.
Several school systems, including those in affluent suburbs such as Westport and Greenwich, were cited only because too many students were absent on the days tests were given.
"More than 50 percent of the school districts didn't meet the annual yearly progress in one of the top-performing states in the country," said William Troy, superintendent of schools in Suffield. "The conclusion is, we really need to take a hard look at this [law]."
Of 166 regional and local school systems, 92 - or 55 percent - either failed to have enough students tested or failed to meet proficiency standards on the Connecticut Mastery Test in elementary schools and middle schools or the Connecticut Academic Performance Test in high schools. Three charter schools, two regional education service centers, the state's regional vocational-technical school system and the school district for the state Department of Children and Families also were on the list.
It was the first time the state has issued a list of entire districts falling below the federal standards.
The list highlights gaps in academic performance for some groups of students but should not be considered a blanket indictment of public schools, state officials said.
"What [districts] have to do ... is look at the reason for their designation. That's the real issue - figure out why you're there and address it," said state Education Commissioner Betty J. Sternberg.
School systems that receive federal Title I money are required to notify parents in writing that they've been placed on the list, but there are no other immediate consequences.
However, those that remain on the list next year will be required to develop improvement plans and, if they fail to make sufficient progress after four years, could be required to reorganize schools, revamp curriculum, reassign teachers and administrators or make other major changes.
The No Child Left Behind Act, signed by Bush last year, expands testing programs and imposes sanctions on schools whose students do not meet state standards in reading and mathematics. The purpose of the law is to close the achievement gap that finds some groups of children, such as minorities and those from low-income families, lagging behind others. Individual schools and entire school districts can be singled out even if only one group falls below standards.
Across the nation, each state sets its own standards under No Child Left Behind, making comparisons difficult. Nevertheless, other states also have identified large numbers of districts that have not met the mark.
In Virginia, 114 of 132 districts fell short, and in Delaware, 17 of 19 did not make adequate progress. All 24 of Maryland's districts were cited.
In Connecticut, six urban districts with high populations of low-income children - Hartford, Bridgeport, New Haven, New Britain, New London and Windham - were cited because they had too few students overall reaching proficiency in mathematics and reading. Bloomfield and Waterbury failed to have enough students reaching proficiency in mathematics.
"It doesn't surprise me. We expected this would happen," said Hartford Superintendent of Schools Robert Henry, who told the state Board of Education Wednesday that Hartford has seen a rise in test scores and a decline in dropouts in recent years.
He said he hoped the list would not harm morale, "given the fact many positive things have happened in those schools."
The government's list also included 43 Connecticut districts that had one or more categories of students - special education children, minority groups, low-income students or students who speak little or no English - falling below standards.
"In fairness ... it's one measure. I would hope people aren't judging the school system based on these scores solely," said John Gallacher, superintendent of schools in Enfield, which was cited for low reading performance by its special education students.
In Cromwell, the decision of a group of teachers and parents to have one special education student take an off-level math test instead of the regular Connecticut Academic Performance Test was enough to land the entire district on the state list.
That meant Cromwell had a 94 percent participation rate in math, which is 1 percent below the state goal, said Superintendent of Schools Mark E. Cohan. In every other category, the district exceeded the state goals used to determine compliance with the federal law, he said.
"If it comes down to a choice between being on somebody's list or fulfilling the individual education programs of our students, we're going to come down on the side of our individual students every single time," Cohan said.
"One child, one percentage point," Cohan said. "I'm just not going to lose any sleep over that."
In Westport, more than 90 percent of students scored at or above proficiency levels, but the district showed up on the list because it failed to meet the requirement that 95 percent of eligible students in every category take the achievement tests.
"It had to do with one or two students who didn't take the test, and there was no follow-up," said Joyce Losen, assistant to the superintendent. "It had nothing to do with how well our kids did."
Robert A. Frahm
School Districts Fall Short
INDEX OF NCLB OUTRAGES