New statewide test results gave Minnesota educators nothing to cheer: Reading and math outcomes showed no significant improvement, and the achievement gap persisted.
In addition, test results all but guarantee the state will not reach its goal of cutting the achievement gap in half by 2017.
For the third year in a row, schools across the state saw no overall improvement on math and reading tests. In the 2015-16 school year, 59 percent of students met math standards, down one percentage point from last year. In reading, 60 percent of students met standards, similar to last year’s results.
Educators say more needs to be done to close disparities and improve achievement, but they offered few concrete plans Wednesday.
State Education Commissioner Brenda Cassellius said she was disappointed by “the slow pace of progress.” Last year, she said stagnant scores were the result of teachers adjusting to the reading test and a need to expand the use of math teaching methods.
This year, she said there are areas outside educators’ control, such as homelessness and family income, that influence student achievement.
“There needs to be a much more coordinated effort, from school districts, from our nonprofits, from everybody,” she said. “It’s all-hands-on-deck to accelerate the achievement of students.”
Just as test scores remain stagnant, so does the progress in closing one of the largest achievement gaps in the country.
In math, 68 percent of white students met math standards, compared to 40 percent of students of color, a 28-point gap. In the 2012-13 school year that gap was 27 points. The gap is similar for reading.
Cassellius admits the state’s goal to cut the achievement gap in half was “ambitious,” but she said she remains committed to closing disparities.
She pointed to legislation passed in 2013 that will require districts to set aside 2 percent of their budget to address achievement gaps in 2017.
Largest districts stagnant
There was little to no progress in improving test scores in the state’s three largest school districts. Anoka-Hennepin, St. Paul and Minneapolis also had large numbers of students opting out of the MCAs at some schools, leaving the districts with incomplete views of student performance.
In Anoka-Hennepin, math scores remained steady, with 66 percent of students meeting state standards.
Reading proficiency was up slightly, with 64 percent of students mastering standards.
Superintendent David Law pointed out that the district’s scores are higher than the state average, a “point of pride” given that the demographics closely reflect the state overall.
In Minneapolis, about 44 percent of students passed the math test, while 43 percent passed the reading exam last school year — results similar to the previous three years.
Ed Graff, the district’s new superintendent, said the scores do not “represent where we want to be.”
The MCAs are just one measure of student success, Graff said, noting that the district has improved graduation rates and reduced suspensions.
“Let me be clear, I am not asking for a pass, because every day our students are coming to school with the hope and expectation that they will walk out more successful than they came in,” Graff said.
Graff, who has been on the job for a few weeks, said it will take some time for him to examine why the scores remain stubbornly low, and he and his staff will begin looking at everything from the district’s curriculum to teacher training.
In St. Paul, 37 percent of students passed the math test, the same as last year; 39 percent of students passed the reading test, a 2-percentage-point gain from 2014-15. The achievement gap remained virtually the same for both.
Officials there also noted an increase in graduation rates and a boost in middle school scores.
“We’re disappointed in the incremental change we’re making,” said Michelle Walker, the district’s chief executive.
Law said math scores at some Anoka-Hennepin high schools dipped because more students opted out. Those who did take the test took it less seriously, Law said. “We have to look at how valuable our parents and students think the MCAs are,” he said.
Minneapolis officials say four out of their seven high schools had a significant number of students opting out, damaging the accuracy of the scores. In math last year, just 84 South High students were tested, compared to more than 384 tested three years ago.
For the first time, Cassellius said she is concerned about the number of students opting out.
In 2018, students who enroll in schools in the Minnesota State Colleges and Universities system will not be required to take a placement exam if they master the MCAs, Cassellius said. She hopes that will deter the number of students opting out.
Some schools see big gains
Despite flat trends at the state and district level, some schools in the metro area saw large gains. KIPP Minnesota, a charter school for middle school students, saw a 17-point spike in students’ math proficiency this year.
Executive Director Alvin Abraham said he pins the improvement on “pulling small groups and doing intervention.”
Whether they are ahead of their class or need extra assistance, kids get more attention this way, he said, noting that more than a quarter of KIPP students receive special education services.
At Park Brook Elementary in Osseo, 48 percent of students met math standards, an 11-percentage point jump from the previous school year.
Don Pascoe, director of research, access and accountability, chalks up the gains to a school culture that emphasizes the mind-body connection, incorporating exercise and movement into academics.
“It has really given the school sort of an identity, both for teachers and for kids,” Pascoe said. “So that’s a big deal.”