Math scores on the biggest statewide exam have plummeted for six straight years, troubling some education officials and teachers — and prompting deep discussions about how to teach math in a more holistic way.

Last year, just 55% of students met state standards on the Minnesota Comprehensive Assessments, or MCAs, a slide of six percentage points in just over a decade. The decline spans all racial groups, and has diverged from the trend in reading scores, which have largely remained flat.

But many education leaders say the sobering statistics don't tell the full story of Minnesota students' performance in math.

Some fault the test itself, calling it an outdated metric that doesn't fully capture the lessons and progress students are making in the classroom. Others blame math anxiety experienced by many students and made worse by a growing fatigue from standardized testing.

The real measures of math competency, they say, can be found elsewhere: on Minnesota's competitive performance on the math portion of the ACT college entrance exam, in students' preparedness for college and the workforce, and in their ability to think critically to solve all kinds of problems.

Whatever the reason for the test-score slide, it comes at a time when both state and local education leaders are actively trying to overhaul the way math is taught and learned in the state's schools.

In her first year on the job, state Education Commissioner Mary Cathryn Ricker said she's sought to meet with math teachers to find out what's working in the classroom and what needs to change. Ricker said Minnesota needs to focus on math in the same way it's begun to do with reading, making it a subject students, families and teachers see as essential to success in school and in life — not just as a series of problems on a test.

"Part of the new conversation I wanted to start is to change the perception of math being [something that] either you're good at or you're not," Ricker said. "Let's say: 'I work hard at math.' Let's talk about persistence. I want to be part of a conversation that shows that math is all around us."

Same old test

Little about the test has changed in recent years. Minnesota revamped the reading portion of the MCAs in 2013 to align the test with national "Common Core" academic standards, but did not do the same in math. The test is based on the state's math curriculum, which was last revised more than a decade ago. Shifts to online testing — rather than tests on paper — were made in 2011 for elementary and middle school students and in 2014 for high schoolers.

Another key change, the shift to "adaptive" testing, has been in place since 2012 for younger students and since 2016 for 11th-grade test takers. Adaptive computerized testing allows the test questions to change depending on a student's performance; when questions are answered correctly, the following questions get harder. If a student misses problems, the test gets easier.

More students are opting out of the MCAs. But except for a handful of schools, the numbers aren't significant enough to affect overall scores. Last year, just under 2% of students statewide chose not to take the math test.

Some teachers say they are seeing more students who feel apathetic about the MCAs. Many 11th-graders take the test while they are also taking the ACT and Advanced Placement exams, sorting out their post-high school plans and fitting in other schoolwork and activities. Julie Beaver, a math teacher at Zimmerman Middle-High School, said students often choose to prioritize classwork or a test such as the ACT that will be looked at by college admissions officers.

"I don't think the students are achieving flat [scores] because they don't know the information," she said. "Sometimes something has to give, and that's the thing."

Dan Seppala, who teaches Advanced Placement statistics and precalculus at Apple Valley High School, said the test can be a major stressor for both students and schools, which are often judged by the public primarily on their performance on the MCAs. He said small tweaks made year to year on the test can make the MCAs a bit of a moving target for teachers.

Real-world approach

Meanwhile, much is changing in math classrooms around the state. That's not because of a formal shift in state requirements; the next review of math curriculum standards — and the math MCA test — won't begin until the 2021-22 school year.

Instead, schools are broadening the idea of what it means to learn math, integrating the subject into coursework and hands-on lessons focused on problem-solving and the real-world implications of math. At Apple Valley High School, classes held in the school's "Fab Lab" — a big space filled with 3-D printers, laser engravers and other machines — are popular. There, they work together to come up with project plans and measurements, transferring the kind of math typically done in a notebook into the creation of real objects. On a recent morning, students hovered around laptops and 3-D printers, drafting up the plans to make luggage tags. On other days, the stuff being made in the Fab Lab can range from full-scale models of fossils for a biology class to signs designed for real businesses.

As the end of class approached, Chris Lee, a physics teacher who runs the Fab Lab, alerted students it was time to clean up.

One student sighed loudly. "Already?" he said.

Lee said the opportunity for students to see how and why math matters in the real world has prompted more interest and excitement from students than he saw in several decades of teaching more traditional classes.

"Standardized tests can't test any of this," he said.

Elsewhere in the building, math classes look a bit more traditional, with students in desks, clutching notebooks and graphing calculators. But even there, teachers say lessons are changing. There's more encouragement to work in groups on problems based on things that are relevant to students' experiences.

In the Grand Rapids School District in northern Minnesota, where students can focus their studies on "career pathways" leading to specific types of jobs, teachers are working directly with local businesses to figure out what skills and classes students need most — and what they're lacking when they show up for an internship or job.

Claire Peterlin, the district's STEM coordinator, said it's clear many students need to see evidence of why math matters — outside of tests or grades — to realize "that they're not just taking math to check a box on their graduation requirements."

Many Minnesota teachers are looking outside the state for ideas about how to make math more relevant to students and central to their learning.

Several follow the work of Jo Boaler, a Stanford professor who specializes in math education, runs a popular education website, and advocates for changing the way math has been taught for more than a century. Boaler dislikes traditional standardized tests and says neither those results, nor teaching math the same way it's been done for years, is helping students in Minnesota or elsewhere.

"If we agree we need some sort of assessment, I would make it a lot better than the tests we use now," she said.

Erin Golden • 612-673-4781