MCA II's show Minnesota students making some gains

MCAII results
A snapshot of the Minnesota Comprehensive Assessments scores shows improvement for students statewide.
Graphic by Betsy Cole

Overall, students in Minnesota did better on standardized test this spring than in past years. On the math portion of the test, average scores were up about 2 percent. For the reading test, scores were up by nearly 3 percent overall.

The best news came from Minnesota's 10th graders. They have to pass part of the reading test to graduate,and the state's sophomores clearly rose to the challenge. Their scores jumped dramatically.

Better yet, minority students showed some of the best gains. American Indian students improved their top-level reading scores by 12 percent over last year, the biggest improvement of any subgroup in this year's test.

Good news for Minnesota 10th graders
High school sophomores dramatically improved reading scores between 2006 and 2008.
Graphic by Betsy Cole

But detailed data released today show some vexing problems remain. The percent of kids that passed the math test dropped by half between third and eleventh grade. Even high schoolers in well-performing suburban districts struggled with the math test says Joe Nathan, with the University of Minnesota's Center for School Change.

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"I looked at about 30 suburban districts, and the only district that as I recall that had more than 50 percent of its kids passing the statewide math test was Edina."

Reading scores have also been slumping badly for the youngest minority students. Scores for Asian and Hispanic third graders are down more than 10 percent in the last two years. Black students have dropped by four percent, but white students have held steady.

The real scrutiny this year, though, will be for the tests themselves. The No Child Left Behind Act made testing a core of American education starting in 2002. But the law has expired and a fierce political battle over its renewal began in Washington, D.C., this month.

Rank and file educators take a dim view of No Child Left Behind, according to Tom Dooher, who heads the state's teacher's union.

Education commissioner
Minnesota Education Commissioner Alice Seagren.
MPR Photo/Tim Pugmire

"It was potentially something good and its turned into something that's just been a debacle...creating (a) cottage industry for testing companies. It really helped some school districts, some areas get refocused on what's important. But its not about a standardized test score and schools are so much more than a snapshot."

Rep. Tim Walz, DFL-Minn., a high school teacher in Mankato before he went to Washington, offered a measure suspending the federal testing requirements last week. The idea failed in a House committee. Ironically, that may in part be because of some of the very communities that have the most difficulty with the tests.

A new study by Washington, D.C., based Lake Research Partners shows that blacks and Hispanics support the testing by a nearly two to one margin. Only a quarter of whites think the tests help schools.

We have data driven decisions that we're making now, and this is helping us improve our instruction.

Chandra Smith, a community service administrator in Minneapolis, is surprised by those survey numbers. She thinks the tests have an inherent cultural bias. But she also think the tests are the way to hold schools accountable to black families like hers. Her kids take the tests in Eden Prairie, Robbinsdale and Minneapolis.

"I do think they're necessary. There needs to be some pre- and post-testing to measure, to see whether or not the way that schools are approaching learning within various cultures is working. And its pretty clear that its not working."

That same dilemma will define the education debate in this year's national elections. Both major party candidates have said that they would like to maintain testing in some manner, even if No Child Left Behind is itself left behind.

Minnesota will remain committed to the tests, according to Education Commissioner Alice Seagren.

Grade 3 Reading by Ethnicity
Reading scores have been slumping for the youngest minority students.
Graphic by Betsy Cole

"We have data driven decisions that we're making now, and this is helping us improve our instruction. It's giving information to teachers about their kids and how they're doing. And we need to make the decision, about whether we're going to forward and insist on high expectations, or whether we're going to say no and go back to the old way of doing things."

The school-by-school test results were released this morning. They're available on the Minnesota Department of Education website.