Academic goals lowered, but Minneapolis still falls short

  • Article by: STEVE BRANDT , Star Tribune
  • Updated: October 19, 2012 - 11:37 PM

Superintendent confident that new strategies will lead to gains.

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Bernadeia Johnson

Photo: David Joles, Star Tribune

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Minneapolis schools are falling short of most of the academic targets the district set five years ago, even after the school board lowered ambitions and adjusted them to match gains in other big-city districts.

The latest round of measurements shows the district hitting about one-fourth of its 2012 academic goals, far off the pace it needs to achieve many of them by 2015, the target the board set two years ago. Most gains in test scores are sluggish, if they're rising at all, and the achievement gaps aren't closing, according to a presentation to school board earlier this month.

"I'm not pleased and I'm not satisfied," Superintendent Bernadeia Johnson said. "I do have confidence in the strategies we've implemented."

The district is only now fully employing her strategies aimed at improving and evaluating teaching, Johnson noted.

There are no penalties for missing the self-set goals facing the school board. "We're making progress, just not quick enough," said Chairman Alberto Monserrate, who said he thinks this will be a key year for Johnson's strategies.

Many of the goals are based on standardized state tests that are analyzed both for overall progress and the gains of traditionally lower-performing groups. Others measure the preparedness of incoming kindergarten students, parent attitudes and the proportion of students taking advanced classes.

Big-city districts

Because Minneapolis has a student body that's more poor and minority than most districts in Minnesota, the goals are based on a sampling of big-city districts that have recorded noticeable gains, including Boston and Long Beach, Calif. This raises the issue of how long district-wide strategies should take to produce significant change.

Joe Nathan, director of the Center for School Change in St. Paul, has worked on successful district-wide improvement in Cincinnati and elsewhere. "Our sense was that there could be very significant progress in five years," he said, starting with implementation, not planning.

That time frame could indicate why Minneapolis has largely failed to register the steady gains of the districts it wants to emulate. The district missed its own 2012 targets for student achievement on math, reading and science tests compared to all students statewide; for high reading and math gains for both minority and all students; on attendance and suspensions, and for graduation and college readiness.

Minneapolis schools met or nearly met targets for the share of high school students taking advanced courses and passing them with scores that could earn them college credit.

There are other bright spots. Nearly two-thirds of district third-graders were proficient in 2012 state reading tests, a key indicator of future academic success. That's up from barely half two years ago.

The district met its goal for another predictor of school success -- how many students enter kindergarten with pre-literacy skills -- but that's only after making it easier to meet. The original goal set in 2007 measured the percentage of all incoming kindergartners who measured up, but that was changed in 2010 to measure only incoming students who had taken the district's preschool program called High Five. Seventy-eight percent of those kids passed.

The district also exceeded its goal of having two-thirds of eighth-graders passing linear algebra with a D minus or better.

Adjusting the goals

The district set the standards in 2007 as part of its first strategic plan in more than 20 years. But it eased them two years ago, after administrators said the earlier goals might make people throw up their hands and call them impossible. They called the revamped goals doable -- and said that districts similar to Minneapolis were achieving them.

In reading, for example, the district had notched a gain of only one percentage point annually in the first two years, compared with a six-point annual goal, so it halved the goal to three points annually. Johnson noted that targets keep changing at the state and federal levels as well with revisions of accountability rules.

Steve Brandt • 612-673-4438 Twitter: @brandtstrib

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