A federally funded multimillion-dollar program to boost student achievement in north Minneapolis is showing some improvement in kindergarten readiness, but still not a broad, significant and sustained increase in student test scores.

The Northside Achievement Zone (NAZ) program covers a 236-block area, offering support services to 2,300 students and their families, paid for over five years with $26 million in federal funding. The mixed results were revealed in a Wilder Foundation review of the program's progress during the 2014-15 school year — and they fall short of the widespread improvements promised when the program began in 2012.

NAZ leaders say it's too soon to show those broad improvements. They say they're focused on students most in need. Many students haven't yet had the benefit of a full range of NAZ programs, they say, and those who have are only now reaching the testing stage.

"It takes time to get these things built right," said Michelle Martin, NAZ's chief operating officer.

But there is some urgency to show results. The federal funding runs out at the end of 2016, and NAZ plans to tap donors for money to keep the program going. Program leaders say they're confident they can show the program's benefits far outweigh its costs.

The new report shows that some promising earlier findings have slipped. For instance, in the 2013-14 school year, elementary students who had participated in NAZ for at least 18 months did much better on state math and reading tests. But that finding didn't carry through in the latest results, perhaps owing to a different mix of students, according to Wilder researcher Ellen Shelton.

The brightest spot in the latest numbers is that children entering kindergarten did far better than their peers on preliteracy proficiency tests if they were enrolled in high-quality preschool programs and their parents took NAZ family education classes. Less than 20 percent of non-NAZ students living in the zone were proficient, while 50 percent of the 16 students with the most intense NAZ experience were proficient. About one-quarter of NAZ families have finished a family education class.

Praise for program

"It looks like they're heading kids in the right direction," said Scott McConnell, a professor of educational psychology at the University of Minnesota. He praised NAZ for providing services for children before they start kindergarten, and predicted the program's expansion will show further benefits.

Although NAZ attempts to improve family stability by assisting with needs such as housing and job training, the Wilder report covers only the key benchmarks of kindergarten readiness, high school graduation and proficiency in third-grade reading and eighth-grade math. It doesn't show that NAZ caused any of the gains, only an association.

A separate Wilder evaluation released last year concluded that for every dollar spent the program was returning more than $6 in social benefits such as increased future earnings, fewer felonies, reduced public assistance or less child abuse.

"We were ecstatic," NAZ President/CEO Sondra Samuels said of that return on investment.

NAZ is in the early stages of a campaign to raise $10 million to $11 million to cover annual expenses for the program once federal funding expires at the end of the year.

Test results mixed

Plenty of challenges remain. Eighth-graders in NAZ did somewhat better than their peers on math proficiency, but when the analysis was extended to grades three through eight, NAZ students did only slightly better.

When tested for reading proficiency, third-grade students had similar results whether they participated in NAZ or not. The data improve slightly for NAZ students when reading proficiency in grades three through five is combined, but only one in five NAZ students attained proficiency.

"It points to just how sticky the needle is that NAZ is trying to move," said Shelton of the Wilder Foundation.

The analysis also found that student test scores were more likely to be above average when students used more NAZ services, such as enrolling in after-school or summer classes. NAZ officials said they're encouraged that students did better at schools that have incorporated more NAZ strategies, such as data analysis, and said they expect better results once all 10 schools do so.

"When we've seen it come together the right way, we've seen the outcomes," Martin said.

Steve Brandt • 612-673-4438

Twitter: @brandtmpls