MERIDEN — More work needs to be done to improve student performance on a statewide test designed to gauge college readiness, School Superintendent Mark Benigni said this week.
Results for the School Day SAT, taken this past spring by high school juniors in Connecticut, showed Meriden trailing the state average and those of similar school districts despite a district-wide focus on college readiness at all grade levels. Scores were released earlier this month.
“The SATs will remain a focus for us. We need to do better. We need to get more students experiencing success on that,” Benigni said, outlining a number of efforts to improve SAT performance.
In Meriden, 514 students at Maloney and Platt high schools took the test. About 37% of those students achieved a score on the English language arts section indicating they are ready for college level coursework in that subject. Just under 12% achieved a similar score on the math portion of the test.
The School Day SAT, administered by the College Board, has been Connecticut’s statewide measure for 11th grade students since 2016.
Each of the two subject areas on the SAT is scored in a range between 200 and 800 points. The test gauges whether students are ready for college level content based on the scores they earn via a so-called College Readiness Index. The index anticipates the likelihood that students would receive at least a C or better in a college level course.
Those scores, according to the College Board, are 480 points in English language arts and 530 points in math.
Scores from last spring fell into one of four categories, on a “Level 1” to ”Level 4” range, with scores in the 3 and 4 range considered having met or exceeded standards.
In Meriden, the largest percentage of students achieved a “Level 1” score — indicating those scores did not meet the standard in either subject. In ELA, nearly 41% of students achieved that score, while 49% of math results fell in that category. The percentage of test results that fell within the “approaching” category for ELA was 22.2% and 39.2% in math.
Results when separated by subgroups of students based on race and ethnicity or whether they are considered high needs — a grouping that includes students whose families are low income and students who have been diagnosed with a disability or are considered an English language learner — showed historic performance gaps persist in city schools.
For example, scores for a little more than half of the 260 students who identified as Hispanic or Latino fell into the Level 1 range and only 64 — 24.6% — of tests were scored at a Level 3 or 4. By contrast, among the 153 white, non-Hispanic students whose tests were scored, 60.8% achieved Level 3 or 4, and 20.3% scored a Level 1.
Among “high needs” students, 28.5% earned a Level 3 or 4 score on the ELA portion, while 61.8% of students who were not considered as having high needs achieved a test score within that range. On the math portion, 8.4% of high needs students earned at least a Level 3, while 21.4% of non-high needs students achieved that same level.
Benigni said 11th graders at Platt and Maloney are now required by the Board of Education to take a half-credit SAT prep course. Students in 8th, 9th and 10th grades are also required to take the PSAT, a practice version of the SAT.
One sign the district is improving opportunities and outcomes for high school students, Benigni said, is the number of the students enrolling in Advanced Placement and other college-level classes. Benigni said in the 2010-2011 school year, his first as superintendent, total enrollment in those classes at Platt and Maloney was around 185 students. This past year, enrollment in those classes had risen to almost 1,000 students.
“Meriden has more students taking those classes than some of our neighboring communities,” Benigni said, adding that encouraging students to challenge themselves has been a focus in the high schools.
“The lesson is you can’t be successful unless you are willing to take a chance,” Benigni said.
But offering students those challenges isn’t enough.
“Once you’ve got students stepping up to the challenge, how can we support them to be successful?” Benigni said.
David Fairchild, Salve Regina University admissions counselor, talks to Platt students during a college prep round table at Platt High School, Wed., Aug. 14, 2019. Dave Zajac, Record-Journal
Similar efforts to improve student outcomes citywide are seeing results in the younger grades, Benigni noted, referencing recent rounds of the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium test or SBAC. That test is administered in grades 3-8 statewide.
In 2018, 48.4% of Meriden fifth graders who took the test achieved scores on the ELA portion that met or exceeded expectations. Two years earlier, that same population of students took the third grade version of the test. That year, 40.1% had met or exceeded expectations — meaning in two years’ time, nearly a quarter more students were meeting or exceeded grade level expectations.
“We’ve seen big gains on SBAC testing,” Benigni said, adding he would like to see that momentum continue into high school.
Meriden Superintendent Mark Benigni during graduation ceremonies at Maloney High School, Friday, June 15, 2018. Dave Zajac, Record-Journal
Students in the younger grades face the same economic barriers as their high school peers. “Somehow we’re overcoming those barriers,” Benigni said. “So we need to make those same efforts at the high schools.”
When compared to other school districts with similar student enrollment and demographics, Meriden results showed some of the lowest percentages of students who met college readiness levels in both subjects. For example, in Danbury, a district with nearly 3,500 more students than Meriden, more than 50% of students earned a score that met or exceeded standards in ELA. In math, more than 22% of students either met or exceeded standards. Both results were more than 10 percentage points greater than in Meriden.
East Hartford, a district with about 1,000 fewer students than Meriden, had similar results in ELA, 39.2%. However, a greater percentage — 21.2% — of test-takers in East Hartford met or exceeded standards in math.
Across Connecticut, 62% of test takers achieved a level 3 or 4 score in ELA and 41% had achieved those same levels in math.
In surrounding suburbs, the majority of students earned passing grades on both the English and math tests. The overall percentages of students whose scores at least met the college readiness standard exceeded statewide averages.
In Wallingford, where more than 68% of last spring’s juniors earned a passing score in ELA, Superintendent Salvatore F. Menzo struck a note of cautious optimism about the test results. One test alone does not reflect how well a school district is meeting the needs of its students, he said.
Menzo described the SAT results as being positive overall for his district. But, he said, they are just one small measure of how well the district is serving its students. He prefers to look at the bigger picture.
“We can’t just look at one measure,” he said.
Other data points Menzo cited to gauge how well the district is serving students include the number of students entering college and those who persist throughout college.
Wallingford Superintendent Salvatore Menzo
He pointed to college persistence for former Wallingford students who would have been juniors in the 2015-16 school year. That year 73% of students achieved a college ready score on the ELA test.
More than 74% of students who graduated the following year, in 2017, went on to college. More than 92% of those students have stayed in college, Menzo noted.
“That’s a pretty good indicator that our students are performing at a high rate,” he said. “We continue to be above the state, and our persistence rate continues to grow.”
For students who did not meet the college readiness standards, the district has to come up with a plan to provide them with support to ensure they leave high school showing they have met those standards.
“The good news is we have staff who are well-attuned,” Menzo said. “We’re making sure we’re looking at every student’s needs. We want to make sure every student is as successful as possible…. We want 100% student success.”