Most Minnesota schools still have a lot of work to do to cut the disparity between white and minority students' proficiency in reading and math in half by 2017, according to new data released Tuesday by the state Department of Education.

Nonetheless, Minnesota education officials say the data give them hope that the state's persistent achievement gap may be relenting. "For the first time, we have concrete goals around gaps, and are letting our school leaders know exactly how far they need to go to be fully on track to close these gaps," said Education Commissioner Brenda Cassellius. "When you look at the numbers, you begin to realize not only how far we've come, but that our goal of reducing these disparities is actually within our reach and very doable."

The state's ambitious goal is laid out in its waiver to the federal No Child Left Behind law.

The data released Tuesday reflects proficiency rates in reading and math for white and nonwhite students, students with limited English proficiency, and those enrolled in special education programs.

School officials were notified this week of whether they had met 2013's goals.

Statewide, 40 percent of school districts met their targets for math for every subgroup of students. In reading, 43 percent of districts met the targets in every category.

Two of the state's most racially and economically diverse districts — Minneapolis and St. Paul — fell short in almost every student category.

Minneapolis, for example, hit the state's proficiency target for only its white students. St. Paul public schools met the state targets only for white students and those with limited English proficiency. "It's certainly right for the state to acknowledge the progress that's been made in closing the achievement gap, but it's also disingenuous to ignore the ongoing challenges, particularly in areas where you see the greatest concentration of underserved kids," said Daniel Sellers, executive director of MinnCAN, a Twin Cities group pushing for education reform.

Signs of success

Despite the inherent challenges faced by Minnesota's urban school districts, Anoka-Hennepin — the state's largest — is exceeding department benchmarks. It surpassed goals for American Indian, Asian, Hispanic and black students, as well as those with limited English proficiency.

Retiring Superintendent Dennis Carlson said the district's success is because of myriad factors, not "one silver bullet."

"I think, though, it starts with good classroom instruction," he said. "It helps to have a number of good teachers who are caring and compassionate."

He also cited the district's efforts to help students who have unique needs — from special education students who are still receiving support after they graduate to immigrant students who are learning English.

"I think I am most proud of the fact that we stick with our kids," he said. "We recognize the fact that everyone learns in different ways."

One school making strides in helping students of color is Global Academy, a Columbia Heights charter school that serves mostly Somali-American students. About 74 of percent of its black students are proficient in math, a number easily surpassing the state's proficiency goal of 48 percent for those students.

In reading, 64 percent of its black students were proficient, almost 25 points higher than the state's goal.

"A lot of our kids are poor. Many are learning English," said Helen Fisk, the school's director. "But once they walk through the door of Global Academy, those factors don't matter. We have the same expectations for them as we would for any child. We expect them to do the work."

Graduation rates also key

Minnesota's waiver from No Child Left Behind requires that schools hit targets each year in order to meet the goal of cutting the achievement gap in half by 2017.

In addition to measuring how proficient students are in reading and math, the state will also gauge graduation rates among white and nonwhite students.

The department will release 2013 graduation data later this month that show "dramatic acceleration of improvement across the state," Cassellius said. In 2012, about 83 percent of white students, 51 percent of black students and 53 percent of Hispanic students graduated from high school in Minnesota.

"Every child deserves the opportunity to succeed," the commissioner said. "But for too long, achievement gaps in Minnesota not only persisted, they grew until they were some of the worst in the nation.

"That is no longer the case. We are reclaiming Minnesota as a leader in education." • 612-673-4469 • 612-673-7192