HARTFORD — Good news on the student achievement front.

Connecticut standardized test scores released Monday show gains in both reading and math to their highest point under this test.

Still, fewer than half of some 231,000 students in grades three through eight who took the test last spring are deemed at grade level or above in math.

And although there seems to have been some gains made in closing the achievement gap, officials aren’t sure yet by how much.

“Our mission to close gaps around the state remains a priority,” said Education Commissioner Miguel Cardona in a written statement.

In 2019, 34.2 percent of black students and 35.7 percent of Hispanic students statewide were at grade level in reading compared with 69.2 percent of white students and 76.9 percent of Asian students.

In math, 23.3 percent of black students and 27 percent of Hispanic students statewide were at grade level compared with 62.1 percent of white students and 76.9 percent of Asian students. For each group that represented an increase from 2018.

Now in its fifth year of administration, the 2019 Smarter Balanced assessment show average scores, overall, have increased to their highest level since the state began using the test in the 2014-15 school year.

In 2018-19, statewide reading achievement levels improved for the second year in a row, from 55.3 percent in 2017-18 to 55.7 percent in 2018-19. The biggest gain was seen in sixth and seventh grades, state officials said.

In math, there was also strong improvement in all grades statewide. The overall percentage of students meeting the proficiency benchmark improved from 46.8 percent in 2017-18 to 48.1 percent in 2018-19. Students in grades three and four did reach the 50 percent mark in terms of proficiency.

Across the state, there was close to a 99 percent participation rate in the test, state officials said.

How local districts did

Region 12 and Ridgefield both saw improvements overall between the 2018-2019 school year and the previous year, while Bethel and Brookfield’s percentage of students that met or exceeded the proficiency benchmark went down. New Milford saw an increase in math but a decrease in English Language Arts and Danbury, Redding and Newtown stayed about the same.

Danbury had the lowest scores in the area for the 2018-2019 school year with 46.2 percent of its students meeting or exceeding that parameter in reading and 37.6 percent of its students achieving those levels in math.

Ridgefield’s percentage of students who met or exceeded that measurement increased from 81.1 percent to 83.9 percent in reading and 72.3 percent to 77.6 percent in math. The district also had the highest reading score for the Danbury area.

Region 12 had 77.8 percent of its students meet or exceed expectations in reading for the 2018-2019 school year, up from 74.8 percent the previous year. That percentage for math was 77.7 percent in 2018-2019, up from 70.7 percent the previous year.

Superintendent Megan Bennett said staff throughout the district analyzed questions students were asking last year to ensure they were being challenged to be problem solvers and critical thinkers.

“The achievement is a reflection of the staff’s efforts to build conceptual understanding while supporting foundational skills,” she said. “As a district, we focused on standards and utilized data to target support and enrichment opportunities.”

New Milford saw both growth and a decrease between 2017-2018 and 2018-2019. The percentage of students who met the state benchmark went from 58.2 percent to 55.7 percent between the two years in reading and 47.1 percent to 51.5 percent.

“Overall we feel very good about our continued growth since the 2014-15 school year,” New Milford Superintendent Kerry Parker said. “Although we took a slight dip over last year, we are performing in line with the state.”

Parker said the reading scores could have dipped because the district was rolling out a new phonics curriculum in kindergarten through second grade. She expects the scores to improve for this current school year though now that it is fully implemented.

“This curriculum should contribute to future growth and increase as students are exposed to foundational skills, which is the basis for all reading achievement,” she said, adding they’ve also strengthened their interventions and supports for reading.

Redding had the highest math percentage in the Danbury area with 77.8 percent. Superintendent of Schools Thomas McMorran said the success is due to the staff’s coordination and work to align the curriculum in each grade with the state’s framework.

“More importantly, however, is how we use student performance data,” he said. “If our analysis shows that a student needs additional instruction or intervention, then our specialists and para-educators can collaborate with the classroom teachers to provide individual support. We believe our strong showing is reflective of that effective diagnosis and remediation of student needs.”

The new normal

The test is aligned to the Connecticut Core Standards, considered more rigorous than the previous Connecticut Mastery Test. Unlike that test, which was periodically adjusted, there are no plans to revise the test to which some school districts and teachers are just now getting accustomed.

In a written statement, Gov. Ned Lamont credited teachers for the improved results.

“They are to be commended for their efforts,” Lamont said. “The ability to attract businesses and encourage them to expand and grow in our state is directly connected to the strength of our workforce, which is why it is critical that we provide the youngest in our communities with the tools needed to succeed in today’s economy.”

Cardona called on districts to continue to identify local practices that are working so all students can achieve successful outcomes regardless of their zip code.

High needs students reflected their highest achievement in 2018-19 and are improving at a rate that is faster than the state as a whole. That goes for low income families, English learners and students with disabilities. All are showing improvements.

Ajit Gopalakrishnan, chief of the State Department of Education’s performance department, called the raised performance averages heartening, especially when it comes to high needs students who are concentrated in the state’s 33 Alliance districts. Most of those districts saw healthy percentage gains. Gopalakrishnan said there is also growth at the middle school grades.

By now, students in sixth grade and below have been exposed to common core standards their entire school careers. The standards are considered rigorous and meet federal accountability standards.

Beyond comparing scores one year to the next, the state has also started to track how the same students do over time.

The growth there, Gopalakrishnan said, is not as strong as the department would like it to be.

“Some (districts) are doing it,” he added. “There are examples of high growth in (high needs) districts ... but the short answer is there are no short cuts to improving academic achievement.”

Some have a ways to go. Bridgeport, for instance, shows fewer students over time meeting the growth target.

The complete results for the state, districts and schools, and student groups are available on the public EdSight portal at http://edsight.ct.gov.

lclambeck@ctpost.com; twitter/lclambeck