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Minnesota students losing ground to peers in other states

  • Article by: MARIA ELENA BACA and EMMA CAREW GROVUM
  • Star Tribune
  • November 3, 2011 - 9:41 AM

Minnesota students remain above average but are losing ground to their peers in other states.

The 2011 National Assessment of Educational Progress, the "Nation's Report Card" released Tuesday, showed Minnesota's reading and math scores were about the same as in 2009, the last time fourth- and eighth-graders across the country took the tests. The results also showed a persistent achievement gap, by race and socioeconomics. And despite steady scores, the state's rankings slipped in fourth-grade math and in reading as some other states made gains.

"The hard reality is we're stuck in Minnesota," said Kent Pekel, executive director of the College Readiness Consortium at the University of Minnesota. "We're deeply stuck, and there's no one piece of the puzzle that is to blame."

The Report Card indicated that Minnesota students remained near the top of the national pack in math and posted above-average scores in reading. Still, only about half were "proficient" or better in math, and fewer than that attained those levels in reading. The National Assessment (NAEP) was taken by about 13,000 Minnesota students at randomly selected schools around the state.

According to an analysis of the results by the education advocacy group MinnCAN, black students remain more than three grade levels behind white students in math and more than two grade levels behind their white peers in reading. Low-income students are more than two grade levels behind wealthier peers.

Only the District of Columbia has consistently had a larger achievement gap.

"The whole United States is tanking on reading for black kids," Minnesota Education Commissioner Brenda Cassellius said. "There's only a handful of states that are getting it done when you look at reading for black kids."

She also expressed concern about stagnant reading scores across the board.

"You see the big focus on STEM [science, technology, engineering, math] ... to the detriment of reading," she said. "All of this shows you really can't just focus on one or the other; you have to educate the whole child."

One program already in the works is Minnesota Reading Corps, which got a big boost in state funding last year, to focus on early childhood literacy. The program, a state-federal partnership, places AmeriCorps workers in schools to work one on one with students on reading.

"The encouraging news is that in the last year, there is a much greater sense of urgency around the need to make reading by third grade a state priority," said Kathy Salzman, the organization's executive director. "If we focus on reading earlier, it's so cost-effective."

Talking about solutions

Pekel said that Massachusetts has similar demographics to Minnesota's, yet it consistently has the top ranking in NAEP assessments. One difference, he said, is that unlike Minnesota, that state has sustained one comprehensive educational reform policy since 1993. In the past decade, Minnesota has seen the Profile of Learning, Q Comp and other educational experiments.

"This data really shows the urgent need for a serious, sustained strategy for improving education that extends across changes in the Legislature and changes in the governor, and that supports and demands improvement for at least a decade," Pekel said, adding that education has become a "political football" in Minnesota. "We don't have consensus, so we regularly head every few years in a different direction."

That critique found allies in Rep. Sondra Erickson, R-Princeton, and her colleague from the other side of the aisle, Rep. Mindy Greiling, DFL-Roseville.

But that may be where the agreement ended.

Erickson, chairwoman of the House Education Reform Committee, posited that the disappointing results are proof that "funding doesn't seem to be the silver bullet," adding that her colleagues in other states are stunned to hear the per-student funding levels in Minnesota, especially in Minneapolis and St. Paul.

Rather, she said, schools should look at individualized learning, done in person or with help from technology.

Greiling, the ranking DFL member of the House Education Finance Committee, countered that state funding to schools has not kept pace with inflation in a decade. She cited research showing the achievement gap is much harder to bridge if it's not addressed before kindergarten. Rather than spend $300 million on a Vikings stadium, she said, the state should invest in early childhood and prekindergarten education for all children.

High stakes

The stakes are high, Pekel said. The top-ranked kids will do fine in college and the workforce. Working down to the middle ranks, he said, students will start to struggle, and those at the bottom will face serious challenges.

Jim Bartholomew, education policy director at the Minnesota Business Partnership, agreed.

"The economic opportunity for the students who are at the bottom of the achievement gap gets more and more dire as our economy continues to shift toward a knowledge base," he said.

He said he sees the positive in being above the national average.

But "it's not so good that we aren't continuing to separate ourselves from the national average," he said. "Not only other states, but other countries are out to win the education race. "

mbaca@startribune.com • 612-673-4409 emma.carewgrovum@startribune.com • 612-673-4154 • Twitter: @CarewGrovum

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