There wasn't the slightest tinge of resignation in Dave Heistad's voice.

He sounded weary, though. A bit sad even.

The Minneapolis Public Schools' testing chief had waited anxiously for months to proclaim that the district had made strides on this year's state reading and math tests.

He wanted to say that several borderline schools had remarkably improved. He wanted to say that the few schools (Armatage, Barton, Burroughs, Dowling, Field, Hale, Kenwood, Lake Harriet and Seward elementaries) that passed last year remained steady or exceeded projections this year.

And, he really wanted to say that annoying achievement gap between black and white students had narrowed.

No such luck.

"We made small, incremental gains, but the gap is still as large as it was," Heistad said shortly after the recent Minnesota Comprehensive Assessments (MCA) scores were released. "We're obviously disappointed that we didn't have more of an impact."

The district improved one point in reading (49) and math (46) compared to last year.

That hurts, especially at a time when the district is courting voters to support a new levy in a referendum this fall. It would bring in $480 million in taxes over eight years.

Heistad really hoped to say "accelerated progress" had been made.

Instead, a familiar pattern held true. Schools with high percentages of students of color and low-income families didn't do well.

In fact, test scores at many of those schools dropped. Significantly in some cases.

For example, two schools in the North Side Initiative -- which are getting extra attention to improve results -- declined. Hall Elementary fell 15 points in reading and 5 points in math. Cityview Elementary dipped eight and five points in reading and math, respectively, compared to 2007.

Lucy Laney and Nellie Stone Johnson showed mixed results.

Both elementary schools had gotten a "fresh start" last year, meaning their staffs and programs were changed as a result of low test scores.

Heistad said he was surprised by Johnson's outcome, considering students showed strong progress during their midterm and national achievement level testing, both precursors to the state tests.

He believes the North Side schools were affected by their transient student body: A sizable percentage of students moved to other schools.

"I still think the initiative will bring change. It's hard to see it in the first year of such a dramatic intervention," Heistad said. "It may take at least three years to see gains.

"People say to be patient the first year, but I was thinking we would see some improvement."

'Have to get a better gauge'

Perhaps the most dramatic one-year decline occurred at Pratt Elementary in southeast Minneapolis, where scores fell 22 points in reading and 34 points in math.

The school's percentage of students who live in poverty also jumped 32 percent, likely because of the closing of nearby Tuttle elementary last year.

"We have to get a better gauge on whether returning students there made progress or those who came from other schools are causing the big drops," Heistad said. "If a school happens to get a group of students, whether they have a lower skill set or are [still learning English], that can have an impact."

None of the high schools hit the mark either.

By the time you read this, Heistad and the district's brain trust likely will have exchanged e-mails during their July 4th weekend, had several impromptu conference calls and attended a couple of sit-down meetings trying to sort it all out.

"We may want to do some curriculum changes or restructuring efforts," Heistad said. "We will analyze the data and find out where the strengths and weaknesses are."

Expect this: Several schools will not make "adequate yearly progress," the standard used to penalize schools under the federal "No Child Left Behind" law. Penalties can range from offering tutoring to restructuring a school's teaching staff, depending on how long the school has missed its goals. There will be some intervention this fall, but it will not necessarily mean restructuring schools the following year, Heistad said.

Not yet, anyway.

"That's why we are so data-driven and we can react when we have a situation that is less than optimal," Heistad said. "We have to come up with the right strategies in a district with less money, less students and bigger problems."

Terry Collins • 612-673-1790