Minnesota reading scores plummet in wake of tough new test; math scores dip slightly

Math scores also dip but educators cautioned the scores aren’t easily comparable to last year.

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In this file photo, a student at Woodbury High School read a passage during a test prep class before taking the Minnesota Comprehensive Assessment.

Photo: Kyndell Harkness, Star Tribune

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Faced with a tough new reading test this spring, most Minnesota schools saw reading scores plummet and math scores dip slightly on state standardized exams.

Statewide, proficiency in reading dropped from 76 percent to 57 percent, according to Minnesota Comprehensive Assessment scores released Monday. In math, proficiency fell 1 percentage point, to 61 percent. The state’s persistent achievement gap between white and minority students showed no real signs of reversing.

But state education officials strongly cautioned against comparing this year’s lackluster scores to last year’s. That’s because this year, students were given a tougher reading test based on standards laid out by a national initiative called Common Core, which seeks to define reading and math skills students should have as they move from grade to grade.

Education Commissioner Brenda Cassellius said the scores do not offer a complete look at what students know. She said historical trends show an upward trajectory and that ACT scores released last week show Minnesota is tops in the nation for the eighth year in a row.

“It’s important to look at today’s test results for what they are — a snapshot in time that tells us how students are doing in mastering our state standards,” she said. “What is needed now is to focus on our efforts and stop moving the goalposts so teachers and students have a consistent target to hit.”

Minnesota is in the midst of a testing revolution. There is increasing opposition to high-stakes exams like the MCAs, the results of which factor into federal poverty aid, teacher merit pay and school rankings under the state’s accountability system.

This spring, legislators decided to scrap the Graduation Required Assessment for Diploma (GRAD) test, which students had to pass in order to graduate, and to replace it with a suite of tests that measure whether students are ready for college. It was a move supported by Gov. Mark Dayton.

Adding fuel to the testing debate was a spate of computer problems that plagued thousands of Minnesota students taking online MCAs this spring. While some school administrators expected the disruptions to affect results, a department-commissioned investigation determined scores were unaffected.

“We’re seeing the limits of using test scores to measure success,” said Denise Specht, president of Education Minnesota, the statewide teachers union. “Too many snow days may have lowered scores in some rural districts. Computer glitches affected some students more than others. Snowstorms and modem speeds shouldn’t affect how Minnesota measures academic quality, but they do. That’s a problem.”

But for now, MCAs still matter in Minnesota.

Math gain in Minneapolis

In Minneapolis, officials were cheered by their second districtwide 3-percentage-point gain in math proficiency in a row. This year’s increase is a contrast to a 1 percent dip statewide from 2012, when the state allowed districts to give the test up to three times. Minneapolis didn’t do that, so it didn’t see the same drop as others in 2013, when the test was given once.

“If you go back again and back again, you do better,” Minneapolis Superintendent Bernadeia Johnson said.

Forty-three percent of Minneapolis students achieved math proficiency, compared to 61 percent statewide.

Districtwide, students dropped 15 percentage points in reading proficiency, to 42 percent. Although the reading score change isn’t comparable to 2012 because of the test change, “it gives us a baseline for future growth,” said Eric Moore, the district’s research director.

All racial or ethnic groups that Minneapolis tracks showed higher math proficiency, but only American Indian students registered enough gain to slightly narrow the gap with whites; they posted a 4 percentage point gain. In reading, the achievement gap widened, with all groups but Asian students sinking more than white students.

In St. Paul, mixed results

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