Reading scores up in Minnesota; math scores buffeted by test change

Reading in class
Minnesota students are showing improved reading abilities, but their math scores are a bit more complicated. Here, Jackson Preparatory Magnet School principal Yeu Vang reads with second grade students in March 2011.
MPR Photo/Jeffrey Thompson

Test results from the state education department show a gain for Minnesota students in reading. It's harder to tell whether there's been a gain in math, because most students took a new, tougher test this year.

The scores continue to showcase Minnesota's wide achievement gap between white students and students of color... as well as students who are and are not in poverty.

Overall, 74 percent of all students in Minnesota are proficient in reading —meaning they're meeting standards in their grade —compared with 72.4 percent last year.

The reading scores follow the pattern in recent years of statewide scores only nudging up or down a couple of percentage points from year to year. Read the full report here.

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In math, 56 percent of all students were proficient this year, down from 8.7 percent last year. But officials caution the math scores cannot be directly compared to last year's because this year's was more difficult and aligned to a more rigorous set of standards.

State Education Commissioner Brenda Cassellius said Minnesota is moving towards math education that better prepares students for college and to compete in a global job market.

"With these new standards, we're starting earlier with algebra concepts and conceptual frameworks and learning progressions - all the way back to kindergarten," Cassellius said.

Cassellius said this year's scores should be viewed as baseline to measure against future scores. One exception was in 11th grade math, where student still took the old test and saw a 5 percent jump in proficiency.

She also said she considered the ongoing academic achievement disparity between white students and students of color a disappointment.

For example, 86 percent of all white third graders were proficient in reading, compared to just 55 percent of Hispanics and 58 percent of blacks.

St. Paul and Minneapolis both fell in math, but are celebrating a 4 percent gain in reading scores. The districts still have fewer students meeting reading standards than the state average but their gains were larger than on the state level. "We still have a long way to go to make even more significant gains for students, and we believe this is a trend upward and we're very pleased with it," said Minneapolis superintendent Bernadeia Johnson.

St. Paul and Minneapolis officials report each district had some successes in narrowing the achievement gap, albeit only a little bit. Gaps still remain.

This year's results were delayed a month because of this summer's state shutdown. Officials say schools should be able to cope with that, but there is one wild card.

The federal No Child Left Behind law doesn't just require students to meet benchmarks. Schools also have to meet a mark called 'adequate yearly progress.' (AYP). Not making AYP is where the label of a 'failing school' comes in.

Schools that don't make AYP for two or more straight years must offer students choices, everything from free tutoring to transferring to a new school.

Letters detailing those choices are usually mailed before the start of school, but all of that is on hold while Minnesota seeks a waiver from the law. The federal government has not yet responded to that request.

If the waiver is granted, no new schools would be added to the list. But if the waiver is rejected, schools would presumably have to scramble to get those letters out.

"If it comes back, though, that we have to go back to the traditional AYP system, it will cause quite a bit of extra work on our part. But in most cases, it'll be the adults who are impacted by this," said David Heistad, assessment director for Minneapolis schools.

For now, though, there's little officials at the district level can do but wait.

State officials say it will be worth the wait. They say the waiver would free schools from spending money on federally-required initiatives that have not been proven to actually improve results.

Cassellius said she's banking heavily on getting that waiver. And if Minnesota is rejected, she said she'll submit another application.