Surbhi Bharadwaj

Two sets of data released last week brought good news for students in Connecticut’s lower-performing school districts: They are catching up to the rest of the state.

In 2017, Connecticut’s high school graduation rate increased for the seventh consecutive year, reaching a record-high 88.9 percent. The uptick was especially apparent among participants in the Alliance Districts program — a state-level initiative that serves the 33 lowest-performing districts in the state. Graduation rates rose 2.5 percent last year in Alliance Districts, compared to the more modest 0.5 percent statewide increase. Since 2011, Alliance Districts have witnessed a 9.3 percent increase in graduation rates, far outpacing the state as whole, which saw a 5.2 percent increase. Another report released last week by the National Assessment of Educational Progress showed significantly narrower gaps in test scores among students of different socioeconomic groups, although the average score stayed roughly the same.

“We laid out a broad new mission in education that was decidedly concentrating on producing far better results in urban systems that in the past,” Gov. Dannel Malloy said in a press conference announcing the increase in graduation rates. “It involves making sure that districts that needed extra help get the help, holding people accountable, and giving schools the assets and leeways necessary to make the changes.”

The governor made the announcement at New Haven’s Wilbur Cross High School. Perennially lagging behind the rest of the state New Haven Public Schools nevertheless saw a impressive 16.1 percent increase in graduation rates between 2011 to 2017 — more than three times the state average. In particular, Wilbur Cross saw the third largest increase in the entire state, from 64.3 percent to 81.3 percent in the last four years.

Carol Birks, superintendent of the New Haven Public Schools, credited increased funding with the enactment of many important initiatives. She noted that the new college and career center and a trauma mitigation program at the Wilbur Cross have been providing much-needed help to students at the school.

According to Ajit Gopalakrishnan, chief performance officer of the Connecticut Department of Education, one reason for the increased rates is that the state has allocated more resources to lower-performing schools. More importantly, under the lead of the Department of Education and the legislature, schools across the state have been engaged in a concentrated effort to target and reduce chronic absenteeism, he said. By paying close attention to each students’ attendance record and tracking any irregularities, schools are better equipped to promptly respond to absenteeism and launch outreach efforts to keep affected students in school.

Gopalakrishnan noted that while the state did not register significant improvement on the National Assessment of Educational Progress report, other achievement indicators have brought better news. One example is the percentage of high school seniors meeting the “college readiness” benchmark on the SAT, the ACT or AP exams, which he said rose from around 37 percent to 43 percent over the last few years. Gopalakrishnan said that while Connecticut is leading most of the nation in reading, its mathematics score stagnates in the middle of the pack, signaling a need for additional attention and efforts.

“We may have to do more in professional development and support for teachers to teach more rigorous standards. We may have to look at the amount of instructional time,” Gopalakrishnan said. “I don’t think there is one clear answer, but we definitely know we have a lot of work to do.”

Richard Lemons, executive director of the Connecticut Coalition for School Change, said that graduation rates and test scores, while correlated to an extent, still measure fundamentally different aspects of the educational system. It may be easier to improve graduation rates than test scores, Lemons explained, and school performances usually improve in fits and starts rather than linearly.

Despite the narrowing achievement gap, the National Assessment of Educational Progress report shows that Connecticut still has a larger gap across different races and ethnicities than the nation as a whole. Lemons said much of the gap can be attributed to the deep economic divide between the state’s pockets of extreme wealth and extreme poverty, and the municipal-level organizational structure of Connecticut school districts, which encourages “income segregation.”

“We have concentrations of poor kids that only go to school with poor kids and concentrations of rich kids that only go to school with rich kids,” Lemons said. “And there is compelling research showing that high concentrations of poverty make it harder to dramatically improve the performance.”

Last year, the Census Bureau found that Connecticut has the third-highest level of income inequality in the nation.

Still, Lemons noted that state officials and legislators are starting to realize the importance of high school education and have made concrete efforts in recent years. Unlike several decades ago, today’s students can no longer drop out of high school and find decent manufacturing jobs that provide a middle-class lifestyle.

Lemon also said an area of concern is the state’s rising budget deficit, which may force the state and localities to cut back on educational funding. The impact, he emphasized, will fall disproportionately on school districts that are already stretched thin — those that serve mostly black, Hispanic and lower-income students.

Gopalakrishnan acknowledged the state’s fiscal reality but expressed confidence about the ability of educators to effectively manage resources and minimize the impact of any potential financial constraints.

“The strain is there and will continue to be there” Gopalakrishnan said. “But as leaders of the educational system we’ll have to do the best we can.”

Connecticut’s graduation rates declined for six years before the trend reversed in 2011.

Malcolm Tang | jiawei.tang@yale.edu