New state data show that nearly two-thirds of Minnesota schools are making significant progress in closing achievement gaps in reading and math, but few schools in Minneapolis and St. Paul are making major gains.
The state is plagued with one of the largest achievement gaps in the U.S. between white students and students of color. The gaps are most prevalent in the Minneapolis and St. Paul public schools. As a way to track progress in closing the gap, the state in 2012 devised the Multiple Measurements Ratings (MMR) system, which relies on test-score improvements and graduation rates.
The overall goal is to cut the achievement gap in half by 2017. Each school also has individual yearly targets that vary, depending on demographics and student performance.
This year, 43 percent of schools met their targets in reading. More than a fifth of schools met all but one. In math, 41 percent of schools met 2015 targets, while 21 percent of schools met all but one target. The state recognized 119 "Reward Schools," top performers in improving their achievement gaps. All are low-income schools.
Gideon Pond Elementary in Burnsville is one of 14 schools recognized five years in a row. More than half of its population consists of students of color who are outperforming their statewide counterparts.
"Year after year, we know for sure they have sustained high performance," said Minnesota Education Commissioner Brenda Cassellius. Her goal now will be to study what is working and then replicate those programs in struggling schools. As she does so, Cassellius is mindful that the biggest achievement gap is in the Minneapolis and St. Paul schools, which have the highest percentages of students of color, and where officials have resisted state efforts.
"If the state really wants to meet its goals, we are going to have to see Minneapolis and St. Paul also improving," Cassellius said. "We are ready to go all-in, but schools are locally controlled. But we are ready to do all hands on deck."
Kenny Elementary was the only Minneapolis school recognized as a top performer; three others slipped off that list this year.
In St. Paul, no school was rated as a Reward School this year. Central High School, which had been a top performer, failed to rate that high this year. Three other St. Paul schools were flagged as needing improvement.
Minneapolis, St. Paul resist
For four years, the Minneapolis and St. Paul school districts have declined to participate in the Minnesota Education Department's Regional Centers of Excellence, a program that puts experts in struggling schools, where they can offer training and support in meeting goals.
Cassellius said the centers have proved useful, noting that 74 percent of the lowest-performing schools using the program saw improved growth from 2011 to 2015.
The Minneapolis Public Schools system did not respond to questions about its lack of participation in the regional centers program. Last year, district officials said they intended to focus on their own plan to get schools off the low-performance list.
Michelle Walker, St. Paul Public Schools chief executive, said, "It's not that we refuse to be a part of the centers, but when we looked at the model, we already had many of those pieces in place."
Last year, the state named the lowest-performing schools, including dozens from Minneapolis and St. Paul. The state designates low-performing schools only every three years so that schools have enough time to show sustained improvement.
Still, not all of the news was grim for those districts.
Phalen Lake Hmong Studies Magnet School — an elementary school on St. Paul's East Side where 91 percent of students are eligible for free or reduced-price lunches and 86 percent are English language learners — was among the schools that saw major progress in closing its achievement gap.
At Phalen, 59 percent of students showed academic improvement this year, with math proficiency rates rising to 46 percent in 2015 from 38 percent last year.
Principal Catherine Rich credited the school's success to her staff's collaborative spirit and willingness to reflect on what works best for students. "We have things we still have to learn," Rich said. "There's an incredible sense of possibility and onward growth — a real strong desire to put all the pieces of the puzzle together."
Minneapolis officials note that they have had significant gains in some of their lowest-performing schools. Anishinabe Academy, an elementary school with a large population of American Indian students, saw double-digit gains in its MMR score. Its math test scores improved to 12 percent proficiency from 6 percent a year ago.
Opt-out rates can hurt
Minneapolis' Henry High School, which is 45 percent black, might have qualified as a top performer, but nearly a fourth of its students did not take the exam. The state requires at least 95 percent participation in the Minnesota Comprehensive Assessments (MCA) in order to be recognized.
State and school district officials say the growing number of students opting out of state-mandated exams is also making it difficult to track the progress of some Minneapolis and St. Paul schools.
The higher opt-out rate is part of a national parents' movement to reduce the number of tests required of students. Some teachers have urged parents to excuse students from exams on the grounds that they aren't an accurate measure of academic performance. And some test results are being used to help gauge teacher performance.
One of the highest opt-out rates was at South High School in Minneapolis, where just 12 percent of 405 juniors took the state math test.
Eric Moore, the district's research evaluation and assessment director, said it's "unfortunate" that a school like Henry was not recognized because too few students took the exams.
"This is a situation where the opt-out situation can have an unintended consequence on the perception of the school," Moore said. "You give the wrong impression that something is wrong, but really it's the same level of excellence. They just don't have enough participation on the assessment."
Staff writers Glenn Howatt and Anthony Lonetree contributed to this report.