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Fewer Minnesota students hit yearly progress goals

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Only half the schools in Minnesota made federally-mandated goals this year; down from two-thirds last year and three-quarters in 2006.
MPR file photo/Tom Robertson

This is one of those good news, bad news stories. 

The good news came earlier this summer, when test results showed that Minnesota kids improved their reading and math scores on the statewide tests they took in April.

The trouble is, they didn't improve enough. Each year, the No Child Left Behind education law ratchets up the goals for standardized tests a little bit, intended to get every kid learning at a level appropriate for their age. Every kid is supposed to catch up by 2014.

But even though students did get better test scores this year, only half the schools in Minnesota made the higher federal goal this year. That's down from two-thirds last year and three-quarters in 2006. 

Most of this year's decline was in the suburbs, since Minneapolis and St. Paul schools showed little change. Only four more urban schools were added to the state's watch list this year, out of about 160.

Education Commissioner
Minnesota's Education Commissioner Alice Seagren, during an interview Tuesday about new data regarding test scores.
MPR photo/Tom Weber

But data from the Minnesota Department of Education show that more than half of the 208 schools that are new to the state's watch list are in the outlying Twin Cities area.

That list now includes surprises like Edina High school, Eastview High School in Apple Valley and Woodbury Junior High. Students in fully half the suburban schools are considered to not be making good progress, compared to a third just last year.

Jim Angermeyr, an analyst with Bloomington Public Schools, which added a school to the watch list this year, says the district itself is also on the list for the first time.

"Suburbs have been able to dodge that bullet a bit longer than urban schools because they are both less diverse and have fewer of the high risk students. As a group that was probably next in line to be flagged, it was probably suburban schools."

They aren't likely to be alone for long, either. By next year most of the schools in the state will probably be on the state's watch list. 

Being on that list can trigger a whole list of penalties, from forcing schools to offer private tutoring, replacing the staff and even sending kids elsewhere.

Very few schools are facing anything that drastic, though.

About half the schools that didn't make the grade this year fell short in only one of about ten factors that are used to calculate annual progress, or AYP. Those factors range from attendance to how kids with subsidized meals scored on tests.

"It might have been English Language Learners, or special education students," said Education Commissioner Alice Seagren. 

There's more to consider about a school than whether its legally defined as in need of improvement, she says.

"You have to look in general at your school site. We don't have that many districts or schools that have chronically underperformed," said Seagren. "So you have to look at the total package, if you will, before you get real concerned."

The state is rising to the occasion, according to Seagren. It launched math and science academies this summer to better train teachers and last year started similar program for school principals. Better teaching is widely considered a good way to turn the trend around.

But the steady decline in the number of schools considered to be working is the center of a growing debate in education.

Minnesota Congressman Tim Walz has been at the center of the debate this summer. A former Mankato teacher, the First District Democrat also authored a bill to suspend the federal sanctions for schools that don't make the grade, at least temporarily. Schools need help, he says.

"If you're going to have these penalties, they better be showing that they're doing what we want them to do. As it appears right now, they take resources from the school and lower the scores. I'd say that's indicative of what's happening, so I'd like to see a change in it."

Walz's bill was turned down in a preliminary hearing, but it's helping spur sentiment in Washington that the goal of getting every kid to grade level in the next six years may be unrealistic.

A final set of this year's test results, from a new science test, is due out later this summer.