Education commissioner points to achievement-gap progress

New scores from a test considered the "nation's report card" show some significant gains in the effort to close Minnesota's achievement gaps, the state's education commissioner said Thursday.

Minnesota has long had some of the nation's largest academic performance gaps between white students and students of color. But it might be time to stop referring to the state as having the "worst in the nation," Commissioner Brenda Cassellius told MPR News this morning.

The scores come from the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), an oft-cited test in education circles because it's considered the best "apples-to-apples" measure of how well students in each state compare to each other in reading and math. The test is given every two years to a sample of fourth- and eighth-graders in each state.

This year, Minnesota students saw several gains in those scores. But state education officials are focusing on specific gaps that have narrowed.

The test's results are given as average scores for a state, out of a possible 500. Cassellius lauded the scores of Minnesota fourth-graders in reading. On that test, white students scored an average of 233 this year, compared to the 208 average for black students. While that is still a 25-point gap, it's a notable improvement over scores from both 2011 and 2009. In 2009, the gap was 35 points. According to NAEP, Minnesota was the only state in the nation to close the white-black achievement gap on fourth-grade reading from 2009 to 2013.

Still, the report noted that Minnesota's black-white performance gap in fourth-grade reading was not significantly different from 1992.

Minnesota's achievement gap is especially challenging because white students continue to excel and improve, meaning students of color need to improve at a faster rate if there is to be any gap closure, Cassellius noted.

Scores were more stagnant for eighth-graders, and there were even some examples of the gap growing larger. In eighth-grade reading, for example, the gap between white and Hispanic students grew 9 points.

Gov. Mark Dayton's administration is noting the difference in gains between fourth and eighth grade as an example of the current governor's educational agenda working better. A better focus on early childhood and pre-kindergarten programs, officials argue, is on display in this newest set of test scores because some of those young students have now aged into fourth grade.

Cassellius and Dayton will discuss the results at a news conference this morning at the State Capitol. It will be Dayton's first public appearance since having a medical procedure at Mayo Clinic two weeks ago to relieve pain in his hip.

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