High-stakes education test results show little progress

Reading scores
Comparison of the percentage of students meeting or exceeding the state reading standard year over year.
Courtesy of Minnesota Department of Education

Math scores for Minnesota 3rd through 8th graders inched up slightly in 2007 compared to the previous year. But statewide reading scores declined in all grades - as much as five percent lower in grades four and six. Minnesota Education Commissioner Alice Seagren said the scores are not ideal.

"I'm not completely satisfied," she said. "I was hoping we would see a little bit more growth. But again we're holding steady so that is a little bit of good news."

Holding steady is not good enough under the federal No Child Left Behind law. Individual schools must show adequate progress each year toward learning targets or risk serious corrective actions by state and federal education agencies. This is the first time since the new standards took effect that state officials can accurately compare the results from one year to the next.

Math scores
Comparison of the percentage of students meeting or exceeding the state math standard year over year.
Courtesy of Minnesota Department of Education

About 26,000 Minnesota students took an alternate test in 2006 to accommodate limited English proficiency. Those same students were required to switch to the standard test this year. And that switch, officials say, is what accounts for the drop in reading scores.

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Other factors go into determining school progress, so the MCA-II scores themselves are not enough to draw conclusions about any potential consequences. Schools are also measured on attendance, participation in testing and demographic differences.

In Minneapolis, however, officials say the scores, while down in reading as a whole, indicate some hope for schools that struggled in previous years. Minneapolis Chief Academic Officer Bernadeia Johnson said shuttering some schools, establishing teaching coaches and other measures appear to be paying off.

"The analysis we did in determining which school would close, which schools would remain open, which would fresh start, was a good strategy," Johnson said.

I'm not completely satisfied. I was hoping we would see a little bit more growth.

Overall, Minneapolis posted significant gains in math, but reading declines are more pronounced. As much as a third of the state's English language learners are in the Minneapolis district.

The scores are also generating concerns that either the tests are unreliable, or that the state is letting students down.

St. Paul Superintendent Meria Carstarphan questioned how reliable the tests are since so many of the state's schools did poorly in reading. She calls the results "puzzling and a little bit frightening."

"Having been a former accountability officer and worked at the state level doing test development," Carstarphan said. "I'll say in my experience that it is unusual for an entire state and one of its larger districts to experience decreases in reading proficiency at all grade levels."

Democratic State Representative Mindy Greiling of Roseville, a critic of No Child Left Behind provisions, said the scores are an indication the state is still not doing enough to adequately fund education.

"I believe we're in real trouble because we're trying to get better and better and better scores, not just level scores and No Child Left Behind will crush down on us if we don't do better and better every year so obviously that's not happening," Greiling said.

State Commissioner Alice Seagren expects the scores to improve as more school reforms and teacher training is put into place. She said the flat scores are not an indication the state should abandon efforts to aim high.

"It would be wrong to pull back on our accountability just because we've had steadiness in our test results. You have to pursue and persist in your goals," she said.

She said the results reconfirm the need for parents and others to emphasize the importance an education has on a student's life.