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Connecticut school performance, attendance scores slow to recover

Members of the Department of Education and a handful of superintendents shared state testing results and chronic absenteeism rates on Monday.
Jessika Harkay
CT Mirror
Members of the Department of Education and a handful of superintendents shared state testing results and chronic absenteeism rates on Monday.

Despite being three years out of the height of COVID-19, academic performance in Connecticut schools is still below pre-pandemic levels, according to new data.

At a news conference Monday morning, the state’s Department of Education released 2022-23 attendance and student assessment data that showed two main highlights: that chronic absenteeism has declined for the first time since the pandemic began but still remains high, and that student test scores have generally flatlined compared to 2021-22 and still remain below pre-pandemic levels.

“I think [the data] actually reflects how hard this work is,” said Ajit Gopalakrishnan, the department’s chief performance officer. “We’ve seen a decline in chronic absence, and that’s great, but we’ve got a lot more work to do [with attendance and test scores] — and it’s not easy work.”

Regardless of a nearly 4% improvement in chronic absenteeism since the 2021-22 school year, about 20%, or 100,000 students, across the state are still missing at least 10% or more of time in the classroom. Prior to the pandemic, in 2018-19, about 10.4% of students were chronically absent.

Education consultant Kari Sullivan-Custer said Monday that the education department had surveyed over 5,000 Connecticut families regarding absences to learn why rates are still twice as high as before the pandemic. Responding families said illness was a leading factor for keeping their students at home, followed by mental health and family obligations.

“We asked the [families] ‘What can we do to help you in attendance so students go back to school?’ and the No. 1 reason is [to make] students feel like they’re part of the school community. … Frequent engagement with professionals will help students. … [And,] ensuring that other families are keeping kids home so illnesses don’t spread, help with language barriers, engaging classroom settings, … are good approaches to reducing chronic absence in our schools,” Sullivan-Custer said. “This work requires a mindset shift, moving from a punitive-sort-of-truancy approach to a chronic absenteeism approach where we get to the root cause of why our students aren’t coming to school.”

As for state test scores, on average, the state is seeing a decline in English Language Arts and slight improvements in math and science compared to the 2021-22 school year.

The scores remain below pre-pandemic levels.

In 2022-23, the average student performance in English Language Arts was 63.9, a slight decline from 64.2 the previous year. The target score is 75.

“It’s an ongoing investigation,” said Irene Parisi, the education department’s chief academic officer, when asked why English scores were beginning to drop. “There’s so many factors that contribute to it. We’re still diving in and looking at that.”

In math and science, scores improved from 58.6 to 59.7 and 61.4 to 61.6 respectively over the last year. Although there was improvement, the numbers still lag behind the 2018-19 school year, when students scored a 67.7 in English, 63.1 in math and 63.8 in science.

The Department of Education highlighted its Learner Engagement and Attendance Program to combat chronic absenteeism, and increased its focus on funding school mental health professionals through several grants and the continued development of “high impact curricula,” including a masterclass on the Science of Reading.

“It takes the entire school community. It takes connection with families, it takes addressing not just the academic needs, but the social, emotional, and mental health needs of our students and staff,” said Education Commissioner Charlene Russell-Tucker. “[It takes] making sure that we’re creating learning environments that are engaging … [with] pathway programs, working with higher education and community partners. That is theinfinite possibilities that we’re talking about as we look at this upcoming year.”

Launched in 2010, The Connecticut Mirror specializes in in-depth news and reporting on public policy, government and politics. CT Mirror is nonprofit, non-partisan, and digital only.