Minnesotans received two pieces of encouraging news on the education front last week. On Election Day, nearly 90 percent of the school districts that asked voters for additional money got it. And on Thursday, the state reported noteworthy student progress on a national achievement exam.
Voters in 50 of 57 districts gave the green light to excess operating levies, an 88 percent passage rate — one of the highest recorded since the Minnesota School Boards Association started keeping track in the 1980s. In addition, voters in 23 of 26 districts approved capital bond levies. A total of 77 of the state's 330 school districts had requested some kind of additional financing from taxpayers.
A number of districts where ballot questions had recently failed were successful Nov. 5. Communities including Richfield, Stillwater and Osseo said yes to additional spending last week. Some school leaders speculated that a slightly improved economy and fallout from painful school cuts in recent years led to the mostly positive results.
More voters were willing to make those investments even after the Minnesota Legislature this year approved nearly $500 million in new education spending. Educators made the case that a big chunk of the new funds will be for new efforts, including all-day kindergarten, and that the money does not make up for a decade of underfunding.
The funds raised through the referendums will help schools jump-start plans for building renovations, computer purchases and security system improvements, as well as shore up basic operating budgets.
As for how state students are doing academically, test results from the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) showed fourth-graders scoring the best in the country in math, with eighth-graders ranking fifth.
Overall, it is not unusual for state students to score in the top five on educational assessments. But this time, though a gap still persists, the scores showed progress toward narrowing the learning disparity between white students and students of color in the earlier grades.
State Education Commissioner Brenda Cassellius said the NAEP reading scores showed that the gap had closed by 10 percentage points between black and white fourth-graders since 2009. That shows that a focus on early literacy during the past several years is beginning to pay off.
"I am really encouraged by the data we have today," Cassellius said at a news conference. "We will no longer say we're at the bottom."
Disparities at the eighth-grade level remain about the same, but the hope is that with the proper continued support students now improving in the early grades can continue their growth in the next four years.
Substantial work remains to be done in Minnesota and nationally for older students. While Minnesota fourth-graders had the best scores in the country in math, eighth-graders showed little change between 2011 and 2013. In reading, although Minnesota's eighth-graders ranked 11th nationally, their scores improved by only one point, from 270 to 271 on a 500-point scale.
As representatives from the national Center for Education Reform pointed out, urgent attention is needed when only about 35 percent of the nation's eighth-graders are considered proficient in reading and math.
Clearly more work remains. After years of bad news, though, the Minnesota results represented progress worth celebrating.