The Connecticut Department of Education held up three local schools that exemplify academic achievement, at the same time that it pointed out three local schools that desperately need a turnaround.
Those six outliers were named on Friday morning, based on the latest annual report card for school districts, known as the Next Generation Accountability indicators.
Every year, the State Department of Education grades each school on up to a dozen weighted measurements. Rather than using test scores alone, the system incorporates measurements of building culture, college and career readiness, physical fitness and access to the arts, said Ajit Gopalakrishnan, the state’s chief performance officer.
This year, New Haven’s overall score ticked upwards, though not as much as the state’s, while Hamden’s overall score dropped a tad. Locally, administrators are now trying to figure out how to keep their students from missing class — a measurements that tanked the overall scores in both towns.
Highs And Lows
The state designated three local schools as “schools of distinction,” a group of 160 statewide that outperformed the rest by either notching the highest scores or the fastest growth.
One is in New Haven: Strong 21st Century Communications School and SCSU Lab (soon to be renamed as the Barack H. Obama School), had some of the highest growth in math among high-needs students anywhere in the state.
The other two are in Hamden: Dunbar Hill, for growth in reading among high-needs students, and West Woods, for high growth in both reading and math for all its students.
On the flip side, the state designated three local schools as “turnaround schools,” a group of 36 statewide that showed consistently low performance for three years running.
They are Augusta Lewis Troup School in Dwight, Wexler-Grant Community School in Dixwell and High School in the Community in Wooster Square.
The state named three more local schools as “focus schools,” a group of 20 statewide that are significantly behind in at least one indicator.
James Hillhouse High School, a turnaround for the last three years, is still a focus school for its low scores in both reading and math. The other two are in Hamden: Hamden Middle School, a focus school last year for its math scores, and Eli Whitney Technical High School are now both behind in their reading scores.
The state also flagged eight schools for achievement gaps that are leaving behind high-needs students who are challenged by a disability, a language barrier or poverty. It said that Hamden has a problem with disparate achievement rates district-wide.
The state does not factor race into how it calculates those gaps, because “it’s not as if all students of color are not achieving as well,” Gopalakrishnan said, though he added that there’s “a lot of overlap” with race in who counts as high-needs.
In New Haven the schools with achievement gaps are Betsy Ross Arts Magnet, Edgewood Magnet, Fair Haven, Common Ground and New Haven Academy, and in Hamden those schools are Ridge Hill, Hamden Middle and Hamden High.
Reading Up, College Enrollment Down
New Haven’s scores, on the whole, moved upward this year. The gains were powered by strong test scores in reading, more participation in college classes or vocational training, an expanded arts program and a higher graduation rate.
But two big issues held the district back: More students are missing class and fewer students are heading to college.
Deputy Superintendent Ivelise Velazquez pointed out that, compared to Bridgeport, Hartford, New Britain and Waterbury, New Haven came out on top with the highest score. “But I do want us to be making more progress,” she added.
New Haven’s score got the biggest boost from a measure of how quickly students are learning to read. The state’s growth indicator rewards schools for how much they’re catching up to grade level each year, even if students don’t actually reach proficiency right away.
Velazquez said that New Haven likely posted such big gains in reading because teachers and coaches spent a lot of time last year reviewing the curriculum, in preparation for implementing new units this year.
“When you have people sitting down, talking about instruction, even before you publish the document itself, that thought is very impactful,” Velazquez said. “Something is happening in [English language arts] that we want to expand to other disciplines.”
New Haven also saw many more students being marked chronically absent. Nearly one in five students in the city’s public schools are missing 10 percent of the days in each school year.
Velazquez said that the district is paying special attention to that indicator this year. The superintendent set a goal of lowering the chronic absenteeism rate to 16.3 percent, down from 19.9 percent a year prior, Velazquez said, and principals now review their progress in bi-weekly reports. Reaching that number will be part of the evaluation for every department head and every building leader, she added, and the State Department of Education also plans to help out with training.
“We know this is an area we’ve been working hard on,” Velazquez said. “We’re being much more systematic.”
Finally, even as the district’s four-year graduation rate climbed to 80 percent, that conflicted with two other indicators about how well the city’s high schools are prepping students.
The percentage of graduates who enrolled in college within a year of receiving their diploma dropped dramatically, down to 59.7 percent from 65.3 percent a year prior. And the percentage of freshmen who are on track to graduate within four years also declined, down to 84.7 percent from 87.1 percent a year prior.
Achievement First Aces Advanced Placement
The Achievement First network, which includes students from Amistad and Elm City College Preparatory, made significant gains on the state’s assessment this year.
The state makes it tough to compare the charter network to other schools because it doesn’t list results by school; instead, it divvies up Amistad High School’s results into three separate districts in New Haven and Bridgeport.
But what’s clear is that a lot of the extra points that Achievement First scored last year came from the much higher percentage of high school students who are passing college-level exams.
Generally, the state is looking for students to score a 1010 on the SAT, an 85 on the ACT, a 3 on an Advanced Placement exam or a 4 on an International Baccalaureate exam, although there’s some minimums in each subject students also have to meet.
Within Achievement First, 50.5 percent of students who went to Amistad and 53.4 percent of students who went to Elm City College Prep are now meeting this benchmark.
“We’re really focused on ensuring our curriculum is geared to true college readiness, and that all students are being prepared for success at the college level,” said Amanda Pinto, the senior communications director for Achievement First. “As one example, the average AF high school student will take five Advanced Placement classes before they graduate, including a math AP and a science AP.”
The network also had some dips in graduation rates and chronic absenteeism, though. Pinto said she expected to see those metrics heading upward again, as the network works “to improve the student experience across our schools,” after a video of a principal shoving a student led to public reckoning about the school’s disciplinary practices.
Hamden Grapples With Absences
Overall, the Hamden School District fared about the same as the previous year, though in some areas it performed worse. Its accountability index was 71.8, compared to 72.0 in 2016-2017.
The highest-scoring school overall in the district was West Woods, at 81.3, while the lowest was Hamden Middle School, at 52.3.
Hamden’s lowest scoring elementary school was Shepherd Glen, at 61.4. That score contrasts dramatically with the previous year’s score of 75.3. The decrease was due in large part to much lower English language arts and math growth scores.
The category where Hamden lagged behind the state most significantly was in chronic absenteeism. Hamden has struggled with attendance recently, and in January, the district decided to make its reduction a priority for focus in the next three years. (Click here to read more about the Hamden School District’s goals.)
The district’s rates worsened last year. In 2017-2018, 15 percent of all students were chronically absent, while 20.9 percent of high-needs students fell in that category. In 2016-2017, those rates were 12.7 and 19.5 percent, respectively.
The middle school had the highest absenteeism in the district, with 18.3 percent overall and 25.2 percent for high-needs students. Every school in the district had higher overall chronic absenteeism than the previous year, except for Church Street, which decreased its rate from 13.4 percent to 11.1 percent.
Dunbar Hill managed to decrease the rate of absenteeism among high-needs students by 1.7 percent, though its overall chronic absenteeism increased slightly. That shift made it the only school where high-needs students had lower chronic absenteeism than the overall student body, though just barely by .1 percent.
The schools that struggled most with attendance were also the poorest. Hamden’s four Title I schools, where at least 40 percent of the students come from low-income families — Church Street, Helen Street, Ridge Hill and Shepherd Glen — had the highest absenteeism rates among elementary schools in the district.
The Wintergreen Interdistrict Magnet School, an ACES K-8 magnet, had exactly the same accountability index as last year: 61.6. It saw little change in its performance in English language arts and math, though it improved slightly on English and did slightly worse on math, both in actual test scores and in its students’ growth. Chronic absenteeism increased from 8.5 percent to 11.3 percent overall, and 11.4 percent to 14.2 percent for high-needs students.