Math results show racial achievement gap hasn't changed

Garden math
Loring Elementary students in a math class.
MPR file Photo/Jessica Mador

Fourth and eighth graders in Minnesota continue to rank near the top in the nation in math, according to new national test results.

But the new report also exposes a key shortcoming for both Minnesota and the nation -- the gap between how well white students perform compared to students of color.

According to the National Assessement of Educational Progress, Minnesota fourth-graders ranked third in the nation for math, and the state's eighth-graders ranked second.

Because each state has its own set of tests and measurements, the NAEP test is the only true yardstick for comparing students across the nation. More than 300,000 fourth- and eighth-graders took the test this spring, 6,400 of them in Minnesota.

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Despite the state's high ranking, State Education Commissioner Alice Seagren is not celebrating.

"We were really pleased, however I must put a big asterisk by that," Seagren said. "We still have a large achievement gap between those student groups and the majority population. So we still have a lot of work to do."

This isn't the first study to reveal Minnesota's achievement gap; it's merely the latest.

The results show that students of color in Minnesota are improving their scores, and are faring better than students of color in other states.

But white students are also improving at about the same rate, which is why Minnesota's gap remains essentially unchanged. In fact, Minnesota's achievement gap is larger than the national achievement gap.

Here are the numbers, which show the point gap between white students and those of other racial groups on the Minnesota math tests, and how that compares to the national results.


  • Whites compared to Blacks: Minn. gap: 28 pts. National gap: 26 pts.

  • Whites - Hispanics: Minn. gap: 23 pts. National gap: 21 pts.

  • Whites - Asian/Pacific Islanders: Minn. gap: 12 pts. National gap: -7 pts. (A/PI scored higher than whites)

  • Whites - American Indian/Alaska Native: Minn. gap: 22 pts. National gap: 21 pts.


  • Whites - Blacks: Minn. gap: 36 pts. National gap: 32 pts.

  • Whites - Hispanics: Minn. gap: 31 pts. National gap: 26 pts.

  • Whites - Asian/Pacific Islanders: Minn. gap: 17 pts. National gap: -8 pts. (A/PI scored higher than whites)

  • Whites - American Indian/Alaska Native: Minn. gap: 23 pts. National gap: 25 pts.

One theory for why the gap persists is that elementary and some middle school teachers are generalists, so they don't have enough deep background in a subject like math.

Tracy Bibelnieks, who teaches math at Augsburg College in Minneapolis, has worked with elementary, middle and high school teachers for more than 20 years, agrees.

"I've met some of these teachers who say, 'I love teaching elementary school,'" she said. "And they say, 'I hate math. Math is so hard.' Well, what are they doing with their students?"

Bibelnieks says the system allows them to become teachers without necessarily knowing that much more than the kids.

So, for example, a teacher might only know one way to multiply 52 x 46, which is what he or she shows the students. But Bibelnieks argues teachers should have enough deep math knowledge to know other ways that different kids might come to the same answer.

"So if a student comes up with this bizarre way to solve a problem, how do you as a teacher know if there's some good, mathematical reasoning in there? If you don't see it, it may in fact be higher-level mathematical reasoning that the student is using," she said.

There are also considerations that Bibelnieks thinks directly contribute to the achievement gap. For example, if a student who is struggling with English gets a word problem wrong, is it because he didn't know the math -- or because he didn't know what the word "solve" meant?

She says students from Spanish-speaking countries sometimes get caught up when we say "one-tenth" -- because in their native tongue, they'd be used to hearing the equivalent of "point one."

Minnesota has implemented changes aimed at closing the gap, including statewide standards as well as math and science academies that teachers attend to bone up on their skills.

The state Department of Education says its next effort is to win stimulus money that might help address some achievement gap problems.

Most education stimulus money is automatic for schools, but there's one pot of money called "Race to the Top" funds that states will compete for. Minnesota won't know if it won those funds until next year.