Elementary and middle schools across Minnesota saw a sharp dip in scores on the statewide math tests this year, a drop that educators chalk up to a tougher exam that students took for the first time.

Schools got better news from the reading tests, where student performance improved slightly.

"We continue to set the bar high for Minnesota students with tougher new standards, and to improve the ways in which we help children master them," state Education Commissioner Brenda Cassellius said about the test results released Wednesday by the state Education Department. "These results also show us we have some work to do to ensure all of our kids are well prepared."

The Minnesota Comprehensive Assessments are the state's high-stakes tests, which help determine whether kids graduate from high school and which schools get punished as underperforming. This year the impact on schools is less clear because of the state's attempt to escape some of the requirements of the federal No Child Left Behind law.

Statewide, less than 57 percent of students are proficient in math, down from 66 percent last year.

In grades 3-8, 58 percent of students were proficient. The proficiency rate for eleventh-graders, who did not face a new exam, increased 5 points, to 48 percent.

Scores on state reading tests inched up from 72 percent student proficiency to 75 percent statewide.

The new math test, the Minnesota Comprehensive Assessment III, and ramped-up standards that it reflects make it difficult to compare this year's results with data from last year, Cassellius said.

"We can't pretend that this isn't a harder test," she said, pointing out that the new math standards introduce kids to algebraic concepts much earlier, among other changes. The standards also include the expectation that all students pass an algebra I course by the end of eighth grade.

"This is a new test, with new standards that -- by [state officials'] own admission -- are more rigorous," said Don Pascoe, assessment director for the Osseo School District.

Besides some content changes, the math tests also set a new bar that students had to clear to show proficiency, he said. Most students also took the test on a computer for the first time. And many students learning English are now lumped in with students taking the regular test instead of their own version.

Closing the gap?

Closing the state's chronic achievement gap between white and nonwhite students remains a priority for Cassellius and a vexing problem for most school districts and charter schools.

The gap between white and black, Latino and American Indian students is at least double digits on the math and reading tests at each grade level. The same is true for Asian students on the reading exams.

The state's two largest urban districts made strides in closing the divide, but also experienced setbacks.

Minneapolis Public Schools narrowed the achievement gap for the first time in six years, with increases in reading scores for black, Latino, Asian and American Indian students that outpaced the gains of their white peers.

Despite that, Minneapolis has the largest achievement gap for students in the metro area. White students are more than twice as likely to pass state reading tests than their black, Latino and American Indian classmates, data show.

In St. Paul, the district celebrated an uptick in reading test scores, but Superintendent Valeria Silva remained disappointed in the gaping achievement gap between white and minority students.

For unprepared students, facing the new math standards was almost like skipping an entire grade of learning, said Lesa Clarkson, a math education professor at the University of Minnesota. She has volunteered in north Minneapolis classrooms for years, observing and teaching teachers and students. Her research focuses on math teaching and curriculum in urban classrooms, home to some of the state's toughest education struggles.

"Students have to know the information at so many levels," Clarkson said. "One of the questions we have to ask is this: Was every teacher prepared to teach that course? We need these students to succeed."

Finding success

Other schools managed to beat state averages in spite of high poverty rates.

Harvest Preparatory School, a charter school in north Minneapolis, posted proficiency rates of 82 percent in reading and 77 percent in math. About 90 percent of students qualify for free or discounted school lunches, a federal indicator of poverty.

And though African-American boys often struggle on the state test, all of the eighth-graders at Best Academy, a program for boys that shares a campus with Harvest Prep, were proficient on the reading test.

Eric Mahmoud, who founded both schools, attributed the scores to hard work by teachers and students. "We expect that our children will do well," he said.

One factor that may also have helped: Unlike most students who were tested this spring, kids at Harvest Prep took the math test with pencil and paper instead of computers.

"You practice the way you play," Mahmoud said, adding that the school will eventually switch to the computer test.

A new approach

For low-performing districts, what the test results really mean remains to be seen.

Minnesota's request for a waiver from the No Child Left Behind Act, which calls for all students to be proficient in reading and math by 2014, has left them in limbo.

The waiver, if granted, would suspend the yearly progress targets that some schools have to meet to avoid penalties under the law. Meanwhile, the state Department of Education plans to come up with another way to measure school performance.

State officials will not release data showing how schools fared under the federal law until later this month. Even then, the state is unlikely to label or sanction schools that fall short of goals.

Staff writer Daarel Burnette II contributed to this report. Corey Mitchell • 612-673-4491 corey.mitchell@startribune.com Sarah Lemagie • 952-882-9016 sarah.lemagie@startribune.com