July 2012

Making Sense of the Vertical Scales: An Alternative View of the Connecticut Mastery Test Results

Robert Cotto, Jr., M.Ed.

Using an alternate measure of educational progress – vertical scale scores – can present a different picture of change over time in the performance of Connecticut students. Each summer, the state reports the results of the Connecticut Mastery Test (CMT), by showing what percent of students scored at five different levels: below basic, basic, proficient, goal, and advanced.  These types of “standards-based” levels are the most widely cited measures of educational progress in Connecticut and will take on increasing importance in the Governor and General Assembly’s recent education law.

However, standards-based reporting may miss improvement that occurs within levels and does not explain improvement over time on different grade-level tests within a subject area.  Therefore, the State Department of Education developed an additional improvement indicator in 2007 -- vertical scale scores.

Vertical scales allow us to understand how students perform on the state tests of math or reading in one grade compared to the next grade, despite more difficult and different math content.  Vertical scale scores are a rough indicator of improvement on the standard CMT from one year to the next, following the same group, or matched cohort, of children.

This report, which looks at the value and limitations of standards-based and vertical scale CMT measures, finds that

  • On average, students are making progress on the vertical scales on the standard CMT in math and reading, even though this growth may not be reflected on the standards-based level reports.
  • Racial and ethnic minority and low-income students had lower vertical scale scores, on average, than white and more affluent students in 3rd grade math and reading, the first year that the standard Connecticut Mastery Test is administered to students.  Within racial and ethnic groups, children from lower-income families (eligible for free and reduced price meals) tend to score lower on the vertical scale scores in third grade.
  • Despite different starting points, black, Latino, English Language Learning students, and students with disabilities on average experienced a comparable amount of growth or improvement on the standard CMT in math and reading from one year-grade 3 in 2009 -- to the next-grade 4 in 2010 -- compared to the statewide average.
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