‘Concerning, very concerning’: Hartford schools find already-low test scores dropped during pandemic

·4 min read

After academics and attendance both faltered during the COVID-19 health crisis, Hartford Public Schools are working to recover lost ground and, over the next three years, dramatically increase test scores even beyond pre-pandemic levels.

One of the district’s goals, outlined in the strategic operating plan cited by school officials, is to see half of Hartford’s 17,000 students proficient in reading by 2023-2024, up from 16% in spring 2021. The school system also intends to improve performance in math and science and on college admissions tests.

All academic performance took a hit as COVID-19 amplified the challenges faced by Hartford families, such as transience and housing insecurity, poverty, health issues, language barriers and low literacy.

“People look at this and just say, ‘Wow, you guys are doing horrible as it relates to the state standards,’ not understanding what the differences are between Hartford Public Schools and our counterpart schools,” Ayesha Clarke, chair of the Hartford Board of Education, said during a meeting Tuesday.

Shockingly high rates of chronic absenteeism last year — district students who live in Hartford missed an average of one in five days of school the first semester — hinted at the toll mostly virtual classes were taking on the city’s disadvantaged communities.

End-of-year test scores threw the situation into even sharper relief.

Sharing the data with the school board this week, Chief Performance Officer Bethany Silver started her presentation with a warning: “The results you’re about to see are concerning, very concerning.”

The share of 11th graders meeting the English language arts benchmark on the SAT fell from 37.4% in 2019 to 29.3% last spring. Students who meet the benchmark scores have a 75% chance of earning at least a C in their first-semester college courses.

Reading and writing proficiency among students also fell 4.7% from 2019 in the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium (SBAC), a test administered to students in multiple grades.

SBAC scores for English and math were steadily rising for nearly all grades between 2017 and 2019. Last year, the share of students proficient in math fell by nearly 6%, according to the district.

“I think we’ve all seen that there’s much work to be done to respond to the interruptions in learning that we have seen,” Madeline Negrón, the district’s chief academic officer, said during Tuesday’s school board meeting.

As district leaders acknowledged, those interruptions — particularly hybrid and remote learning — have set back schools that are already performing below state standards.

Across Connecticut, half of all SBAC test takers were proficient in English language arts, compared to 20% of Hartford’s test takers, and only 4.1% among English learners and 1.9% among Hartford’s students with disabilities.

There are similar disparities in science and math.

To turn things around, Hartford is continuing the attendance challenges that helped bring students back to school last year, and hiring more instructional coaches.

The district is also spending the next two years giving teachers professional training on the science of reading to guide their methods of teaching.

Plans are still taking shape for a return of free tutoring services after school and on Saturdays, a practice Hartford launched last November.

Superintendent Leslie Torres-Rodriguez said she hasn’t decided how the tutoring will be structured this year. The district will likely incorporate tutoring into existing after-school programs and offer the service on its own, using either Hartford teachers or a tutoring company, she said.

Some of the initiatives are possible because Hartford schools are receiving $127 million in federal COVID-19 relief, which must be spent by the end of 2024. The district plans to use some of the money to pay for summer school programs in every school and for every grade, and to support a potential shift to an extended school day or year, Torres-Rodriguez said Friday.

Hartford is also revising its curriculums on an ongoing basis, something she thinks contributed to the gains in test scores prior to the pandemic. There is much greater emphasis on literacy, Torres-Rodriguez said.

Board member Craig Stallings said he’d like to see that priority reflected throughout the community. He suggested that churches help talk about literacy and that neighborhood bodegas reinforce lessons by posting sight words, the commonly used words that young children are encouraged to recognize by sight.

“We can talk about programs until we’re blue in the face, but if no one’s at home reinforcing reading, if no one’s at home reinforcing the math, then there’s very little movement that we can make,” Stallings said.

Board member A.J. Johnson, a pastor and community organizer, gave another example: more children’s storyboards could be added to playgrounds and other public places. He agreed with Stallings that the school district’s problems are community problems that require communitywide solutions.

Torres-Rodriguez said the district can call together all of its partners, from community groups, large organizations like the United Way and faith leaders, “to at least set the stage for the challenge that’s in front of us.”

“What do we mean by early literacy and how is it that other stakeholders can be part of this?” she added. “Point very well taken that this is a broader effort.”

Rebecca Lurye can be reached at rlurye@courant.com.

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