Report highlights achievement gaps among Fairfield students

Students arrive for the first day of school in Fairfield, Ct., Monday morning, August 30, 2021.

Students arrive for the first day of school in Fairfield, Ct., Monday morning, August 30, 2021.

Carol Kaliff / For Hearst Connecticut Media

FAIRFIELD — Officials are looking at how to address disparities among different groups of students, pointing to a recent report that shows a consistent achievement gap between Black and Hispanic students and white and Asian students.

Superintendent of Schools Mike Cummings said at a recent school board meeting that they’re asked why officials are looking at issues of bias and anti-racism. He said he thinks the report on student achievement starts to answer why.

“The questions of why we’re doing this really gets at the heart of the supports our students need to be successful,” he said, adding the district needs to think about students’ sense of belonging and success.

Cummings said the disparity between subgroups at Fairfield Public Schools has been happening over a number of years, but the COVID-19 pandemic has increased that disparity while achievement for all students has remained flat.

“The system is producing the results it is designed to produce,” Cummings said. “When we think ahead of what we need to do, it’s system changes that we really have to look at in order to initiate the changes in our student achievement.”

Cummings said the district needs to examine practices, protocols and policies throughout the school system to determine what needs to be changed. He said changes need to include instruction, curriculum, professional learning and resources — but also expectations and culture.

“We are challenged by the needs of different learners,” he said. “We are being far more reactive and not enough proactive, and we are inconsistent.”

Paul Rasmussen, the district’s director of secondary math and student achievement, presented the analysis based at the meeting, looking at a number of factors. They included Smarter Balanced Assessment scores, PSAT and SAT scores, attendance data and suspension rates.

Data shows that the percentage of students who are chronically absent jumped during the pandemic. The state identifies chronically absent as a student who is out for more than 10 percent of the year, which is about 18 days.

“It’s not a hard concept to understand,” he said. “If a student is not in school, learning becomes more difficult.”

An average of 16.5 percent of students qualified as chronically absent in the 2020-2021 school year, though the actual percentage varies by grade. But Black and Hispanic students were approximately two times as likely to be chronically absent as their peers.

Rasmussen said he was startled by the information, but did not know the reason why.

“The data is just an entry point to kind of ask more questions,” he said. “These leading indicators are really important to better understand that, ultimately, these are things that we can control as a system to better support our students related to their learning.”

Suspension rates showed similar data, with Black and Hispanic students having a higher percentage of suspension compared to white and Asian students.

Testing scores showed a similar pattern. In English language arts, Black and Hispanic students met or exceeded the benchmark on the SATs approximately 30 percent less of the time, and about 20 percent less on the Smarter Balance Assessment.

There were also disparities in math.

Notably, the achievement gap had a similar gulf in Smarter Balance and SAT testing when it came to comparing high-need students and non-high-need students. The district defines high need as a student on free or reduced lunch, in the special education program, or an English language learner.

The data on testing spanned from the 2017-2018 school year to the 2020-2021 school year. While Rasmussen’s report noted it was not meant to make any conclusions about the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on student achievement, board members were quick to point out that it clearly had.

“We are clearly seeing the impacts of COVID-19, whether it’s due to the impact of attendance, how it impacted teacher instruction,” board member Jennifer Maxon-Kennelly said.

Rasmussen agreed but said the achievement gap among subgroups in Fairfield’s schools predated the pandemic.

“We needed to take a larger view, not to make isolated conclusions around just COVID,” he said. “The data’s suggesting it runs deeper than just looking at the COVID data.”