Minnesota students showed little overall improvement in reading, math or science, according to the latest batch of results from statewide, standardized tests taken by nearly 500,000 elementary and high school students this spring.
In math, 61 percent of students were proficient, the same as in 2013, according to the Minnesota Comprehensive Assessments results released early Tuesday. Scores also were unchanged in science at 53 percent proficiency for high school students, while 61 percent of fifth-graders and 45 percent of eighth-graders were considered proficient.
While math and science scores remained stagnant, there was a glimmer of good news in reading scores: they rose slightly one year after they had plunged almost 20 percentage points following a change in state academic standards.
Statewide, 59 percent of students were found proficient in reading. Last year, 57 percent were considered proficient, down sharply from 76 percent in 2012.
The MCAs, taken annually by thousands of students from elementary to high school, are used to chart the progress of schools and districts and to monitor school improvement and accountability.
Minnesota Education Commissioner Brenda Cassellius said the largely flat results are indicative of the state’s stringent academic standards, which are grooming students for either college or a career. Last week, Minnesota students posted the highest ACT scores in the nation for the ninth year in a row. “We are seeing steady improvement in student achievement. The trend line is up, and that’s progress,” Cassellius said. “This kind of change is exactly what we hope to see as our teachers master how to best teach our tougher standards, so each student approaches the test confident and fully prepared.”
But the MCA scores also showed that another challenge endures. The achievement gap between white and minority students continues, despite some recent strong showings on other standardized tests by elementary-age black students.
In math, for example, black students tested in grades 3 through 8 were 35 percent proficient, compared to 71 percent for white students. In reading, the disparity was just as stark — 33 percent proficiency for black students and 67 percent for white students.
The state has pledged it will cut the achievement gap in half by 2017.
“I think we can say that no one in this community is happy with where [the achievement gap] is at,” said Jonathan May, director of data and research for Generation Next, a Twin Cities group working to eliminate racial disparities in education.
Cassellius said the slight uptick in reading scores was about what she expected.
In 2010, Minnesota adopted what is widely known as Common Core standards for reading, with some modifications. In general, those standards require students to read increasingly more difficult texts as they progress through grades and to demonstrate that they understand what they’re reading by either writing about it or through classroom discussions. The state Department of Education expected a decrease in reading scores and even sent a letter to parents warning them of a likely slide.
This year, reading scores were expected to rebound, but how much was anyone’s guess.
“At least we didn’t go down,” said Jim Bartholomew, education policy director for the Minnesota Business Partnership.
Others pushing for education reform in Minnesota said they hope the state maintains consistent academic standards.
“We need to stop moving the goalpost,” said Daniel Sellers, executive director of MinnCAN, a group pushing for education reform. “For us the best news is that we finally have some consistency to compare. So that’s a positive about this year — we can now look at the data and determine what the best policies are for kids.”
In Minneapolis, 42 percent of students were proficient in reading, which did not increase compared to last year’s scores. In math, 44 percent of students were proficient, a 1 percent gain from last year.
Eleventh-graders saw the largest decreases in scores, with a 6 percent decrease in reading scores and a 10 percent decrease in math scores. Only 25 percent of Minneapolis eleventh-graders were proficient in math compared to 50 percent at the state level.
The district’s achievement gap continues to be one of the largest in the state. Its white students scored 50 percentage points more on their reading and math tests compared to black students. The district has vowed to address that gap by introducing the Office of Black Student Achievement this year.
Some schools have begun to see gains for black students. Math scores for black students at Northrop Elementary were up 21 percentage points compared to last year, while reading scores were up 14 percentage points.
“That shows that strong staff and leadership matter,” said Superintendent Bernadeia Johnson, adding that she will aim to replicate what schools like Northrop are doing.
In St. Paul, a mixed bag
The 2013-14 school year brought major changes to the St. Paul public schools, with two-year junior highs becoming three-year middle schools and students shifting to schools closer to home. That year of transition helped produce mixed results.
Overall, 38 percent of St. Paul students were proficient in reading, a 1-percentage-point gain, but math scores saw a 2-percentage-point decline, with 42 percent of students being proficient.
The achievement gap was unchanged in math at 45 percentage points, but it widened to 48 percent in reading as the percentage of white students who tested proficient grew by 2 percentage points, while the percentage of black students who were proficient stood at 25 percent — the same as in 2012-13.
The structural changes brought about by the Strong Schools, Strong Communities strategic plan resulted in 40 percent of students being on the move from 2012-13 to 2013-14, compared with 31 percent and 32 percent in the two previous years, and periods of transition typically bring with them a dip in test results, said Christine Osorio, the district’s chief academic officer.
Looking ahead, she said, the district should benefit from stability in the grade configurations, as well as early intervention efforts with sixth-graders who are struggling.
MCAs’ value questioned
While the MCAs are important in measuring student performance, they don’t carry the weight they once did. Under the No Child Left Behind law, math and reading proficiency measured by the MCAs determined which schools were branded failures and forced to improve.
Minnesota, however, was freed from the federal law in early 2012 and rolled out a more nuanced accountability system for schools that same year. With the waiver in place, education officials have tried to reform Minnesota’s current testing regime by scrapping high-stakes tests for high school students and replacing them with ones that gauge whether a student is ready for college or a career.
Denise Specht, president of Education Minnesota, the statewide teachers union, questioned the MCAs’ value. “I’m conflicted when people talk about rising test scores,” she said. “It’s nice for educators to get a pat on the back, but they are being complimented for building better bubble fillers, which is a terrible goal for a school system.”