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Minnesota elementary and middle school students saw big gains on the statewide math test this year, but some educators say those improvements might be because students could take the test multiple times.
Statewide, proficiency in math increased from 56 percent last year to 62 percent this year, according to Minnesota Comprehensive Assessment results released Wednesday.
Elementary and middle school students were given up to three opportunities to take the math test this past school year because it was the first time it was offered online. One of the state's leading assessment directors compared that approach to a card player going to Las Vegas and getting three cards at a time instead of one.
"It increases the probability of having a good hand like it increases the probability of a good score," said David Heistad, Bloomington's director of research, evaluation and assessment.
Overall, math and reading scores were up across the board for third- through eighth-graders. Also, some minority groups such as American Indians and Hispanics saw significant increases in math scores, particularly among elementary and middle school students.
While the MCAs are an important measuring stick, 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 was freed from the federal law in February and rolled out a more nuanced accountability system for schools this spring. Those results will be out later this month.
Still, state education officials say students' math and reading scores are a good indication that students are making strides.
"The upward trends we're seeing show that we are on the right path to prepare our students for success," Minnesota Education Commissioner Brenda Cassellius said.
Computers over paper
Last year, the state Department of Education rolled out a revised math test based on tougher standards that, among other things, introduced kids to algebraic concepts much earlier. Consequently, math scores plummeted in 2011.
State education officials this year decided to offer the test online to middle school and elementary students. It proved to be a popular choice among schools -- about 88 percent of students picked computers over paper.
Many schools also took advantage of the state's decision to allow them to take the test up to three times and count their highest score. Next year, students will be able to take two practice tests online. Their score on the third exam will be what the state recognizes.
Heistad said about a third to a half of metro area districts took advantage of the opportunity for students to take the math assessment more than once. Neither Bloomington nor most Minneapolis schools did so.
"The math scores are real problematic this year," he said, adding that the three chances inflate scores and will mess up comparisons with next year's scores.
Not all students showed gains in math scores, however. Statewide, about 41 percent of juniors were proficient in math, down from 48 percent the year before. There wasn't much at stake for juniors, however. They weren't required to pass math and reading tests in order to graduate but will have to in 2014.
At charter schools
Statewide, minority students' math proficiency as a group remained well behind that of whites but their gains slightly outpaced white students' improvements. They generally trailed the small gains in reading proficiency among whites.
Charter schools dominated the list of high scores among schools with significant poverty. But some of them saw good results and vowed to work still harder. That was the case at Hiawatha Academies, which ranked fifth among high-poverty schools in math, with 71 percent proficiency, a score that tops the state average of 62 percent. It ranked eighth among those schools with 63.8 percent reading proficiency in its predominantly Latino student body.
"My humble response to this is that when we see 71 percent proficient, we immediately think about the other 29 percent," said Eli Kramer, the Minneapolis school's interim executive director. "We're not satisfied."
In Minneapolis and St. Paul
In Minneapolis, all racial groups gained modestly in math over 2011 and minority students met or exceeded white gains, while remaining far behind on absolute proficiency. Reading gains were best for black and Indian students, but proficiency dipped slightly for Asian and Latino students.
The most notable increase for Minneapolis students was a 6 percentage point reading gain over 2011 for third-graders, coupled with a smaller gain in math.
In St. Paul, white students continued to score high on the reading and math tests while performance among minority students held steady in reading and declined or increased only slightly in math. That led to overall scores remaining at the same levels as in 2011, with 57.2 percent proficient in reading and 41.3 percent proficient in math. "The good news is that we sustained our gains from last year and we are not going in the wrong direction," chief of staff Michelle Walker said. "We think good instruction will help all students. We are encouraged by that, and need to accelerate that."
Dayton's Bluff Elementary had some of the top reading scores among schools with high poverty levels.
"That is a school that continuously beats the odds; we hold that up as our shining example," Walker said. "With good solid instruction, we can see achievement gains in all student groups. It proves we know how to do it."