New statewide test results reveal a familiar tale of woe for Minnesota schools: No improvements in math and reading, nor in the state's stubborn achievement gap.

"Frustrating," Education Commissioner Brenda Cassellius termed it in a statement Monday.

Five years ago, Minnesota set an ambitious goal of cutting the achievement gap in half by 2017. But in the four years since it introduced a tough new reading test, the gaps in results between white and minority students statewide have barely budged in reading and math, and widened in math in both St. Paul and Minneapolis.

Cassellius cautioned that test scores are "just one part of the picture" in gauging student performance, and expressed hope that the state's plan to provide support to struggling schools under the new federal Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) will help to close the gaps.

"There's more to providing a student with a well-rounded education than can be seen in a test," she said in comments echoed by Education Minnesota, the statewide teachers' union.

Results for the Minnesota Comprehensive Assessments (MCAs) showed 59 percent of state students meeting math standards in 2016-17, the same as in 2015-16. In reading, 60 percent of students tested proficient in reading, also the same as in 2015-16.

At Generation Next, a public-private collaborative dedicated to closing the achievement gap for students of color in the Twin Cities, managing director Jonathan May said he had yet to take a full dive into the data. But he added he was concerned about gaps having stayed more or less flat over five years.

"These are unacceptable outcomes and depict the urgent nature of our local disparities," May said.

While Minneapolis and St. Paul saw little to no improvement in districtwide math and reading results, several high-poverty schools in the Anoka-Hennepin and North St. Paul-Maplewood-Oakdale districts saw success "beating the odds" by posting proficiency scores far exceeding what one might expect based on the percentage of kids who qualify for free or reduced-price lunches. Several metro area charter schools also achieved similar success.

"While three-to-five-year trends in reading and math are relatively flat, District 622 continues to outperform similar districts in Minnesota," North St. Paul-Maplewood-Oakdale Superintendent Christine Osorio said in a statement. "In part we attribute this to our outstanding staff and the investments made in professional development."

Making changes

At a news conference Monday morning, Minneapolis Public Schools Superintendent Ed Graff said that "anyone who cares about kids and their progress cannot be happy about these results that we have seen."

This year, 42.3 percent of Minneapolis students met the math standards, down from 43.8 percent, while 43.4 percent were proficient in reading, up from 42.9 percent.

The district pointed to pockets of success, including Bancroft and Lucy Craft Laney elementary schools.

But a failure to achieve significant gains in student performance means the district needs to do things differently, Graff said. He cited a new literacy curriculum for prekindergarten through fifth-grade students, social-emotional learning and efforts to track student skills more regularly through the year.

"For too long we have been caught up in MCA scores and haven't focused enough on what leads up to those results," he said. "Third grade is too late to have a test tell us where our kids are at."

He said about 9,395 students are struggling to meet goals for success.

In St. Paul, officials touted increases in science proficiency and in reading results for students in upper grades.

But, Kate Wilcox-Harris, the district's chief academic officer, said in a statement that "we are concerned about the lack of progress in general."

Students meeting math standards fell by two points to 35 percent, while those testing proficient in reading dropped one point to 38 percent. Only 28 percent of minorities tested proficient in reading in 2017, compared with 74 percent of white students.

Four years ago, St. Paul had a 47 percentage point gap in math results between white and black students — a disparity described by one board member as "horrific." Now, it is 50 points, though this year — for the first time — the state allows individuals to self-identify as more than one race or ethnicity, which may affect the results.

"Certainly, it is troubling when scores decline, even by a small amount," Wilcox-Harris said in her statement. "By working more closely with staff, families and our community, we will find ways to increase achievement for every student."

State has a plan

Last week, state education officials rolled out their new school accountability plan to take full effect in the 2018-19 school year. Officials view the act as a way to tackle test scores and the achievement gap.

"We need all children succeeding, which requires a real focus on providing an equitable education," Cassellius said. "That's why we are proposing ambitious goals that address achievement gaps in our draft plan under the federal Every Student Succeeds Act that extend beyond just looking at the individual test scores we're looking at today."

Under the state's plan, all schools will be evaluated in five areas: student achievement on tests, academic progress over time, graduation rates, progress toward English language proficiency and consistent attendance.

The plan replaces the ratings and labels given to public schools based on their performance with one that focuses on the lowest-performing 5 percent of Title 1-funded schools. It also would identify high schools with a graduation rate below 67 percent or where any student group — black, Asian, Latino or low-income, for example — falls below a 67 percent graduation rate. Some education advocacy say the act fails to address high-performing schools. Daniel Sellers, executive director of EdAllies, an education policy advocacy group, said the state does not have a plan for schools that are beating the odds.

"The way we are going to close the achievement gap is look at the schools that are performing well," he said. "And not just celebrate them and send them a banner, but really take time to understand what are they doing to meet the needs of those kids." 612-673-4109 612-673-1707 612-673-1789