New Haven is having a bad case of test anxiety.
The results from the first round of Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium testing — the new Common Core-based assessment — showcased a yawning achievement gap between students in New Haven Public Schools and their peers in other Connecticut cities and towns. Less than 30 percent meet or exceed the Common Core grade-level standards for English Language Arts; more than 85 percent miss the mark in math. The New Haven Board of Education (“Test Scores Discussed at BOE Meeting,” October 8) is urgently searching for solutions, discussing changes to the school funding formula and ways to better support teachers as they continue working to implement the relatively new Common Core standards.
Examining the SBAC scores of each of New Haven’s dozens of schools, rather than the districtwide average, sheds real light onto the roots of New Haven’s decadeslong struggle with weak test scores. It’s a problem that no funding formula or tweak in professional development can fix.
Worthington Hooker School, in East Rock, boasts the highest SBAC scores of any K-8 school in the district. Nearly 65 percent of their students received 3s or 4s — passing scores — on the math SBAC. Lincoln-Bassett School, in Newhallville, is among the lowest-scoring K-8 schools: 5.5 percent of students received 3s on the math SBAC. None received 4s.
Lincoln-Bassett and Hooker are just over a mile apart. Yet students at Hooker are 12 times more likely to be doing math at grade level. Is it because teachers at Hooker work 12 times harder, or are 12 times more qualified, than teachers at Lincoln-Bassett? This is highly unlikely. Is it that Hooker is 12 times better-funded than Lincoln-Bassett? More plausible, but not true. In fact, Lincoln-Bassett receives the most funding-per-weighted-pupil of any K-8 neighborhood school in the city. Hooker’s funding per student is just below the city’s median.
These gaps have little, if anything, to do with funding equity, instructional quality or school culture. It’s about New Haven’s deep class divide, and the fact that we are asking teachers to do the impossible job of closing an inequality gap on their own when the inequalities themselves make it difficult for students to learn.
The four schools in New Haven with the highest SBAC scores (excluding interdistrict magnet schools) are Worthington Hooker, Nathan Hale, Edgewood and Davis Street. Those four schools serve students from New Haven’s predominately white, middle-class neighborhoods: East Rock, East Shore and Westville. Meanwhile, schools in New Haven’s neighborhoods of color, where many residents struggle to find living-wage work — Truman School in The Hill, Fair Haven School in Fair Haven, Augusta Lewis Troup School in the Dwight/Edgewood neighborhood — score similarly to Lincoln-Bassett.
It’s not that kids in Newhallville or Fair Haven are any less bright and diligent than their peers in East Rock or Westville — not at all. But no amount of effort on the part of the student or the teacher can make up for the fact that kids who are hungry, struggling with undiagnosed health issues or worrying about an unstable living situation will have a harder time focusing and retaining information. And no policy change from the Board of Education will erase the fact that the legions of minivan-driving “(Worthington) Hooker Moms” have access to high-quality early childhood programs, out-of-school tutoring and other learning opportunities for their children that Lincoln-Bassett parents can’t afford. All kids have potential, but the structural disadvantages and toxic stresses of poverty mean that kids born into poor families will have to work a lot harder than their privileged peers to get to the same place.
If we want to close the achievement gap, it’s not enough to shuffle around resources within New Haven’s school system. Tweaks to teacher training and school funding are important, but they’re tinkering around the edges of a bigger problem. We need to expand Mayor Harp’s innovative YouthStat program that helps connect struggling students with the out-of-school supports they need to succeed. We need to aggressively lobby the state to fix a broken municipal taxation system that leaves enclaves of wealthy homeowners like Greenwich and Westport flush with cash to fund top-scoring schools, while cities like New Haven and Bridgeport struggle with tough choices between balancing their budgets and providing basic services to children and families. We need to recognize that good schools aren’t enough. We first need to make sure that children’s basic needs are met so that when they get to school, they’re ready to succeed.
Fish Stark is a junior in Jonathan Edwards College. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org .