Minnesota's education achievement gap may be closing, new data suggest

A majority of the state's school districts are on track to cut the achievement gap between white students and students of color in half by 2017, according to new data, and the Minnesota Department of Education says that's proof the state's effort to help struggling schools is working.

The numbers come after Minnesota's educators have tried to improve test scores among African American, Latino, Asian and Native American students, with mixed results. Now, three quarters of Minnesota school districts are meeting, or are just a few points shy of meeting, the goals the state has set to improve the academic performance of students of color, as well as low income students, special education students and English language learners.

State education commissioner Brenda Cassellius says districts need to meet those yearly goals if they hope to have a chance to cut the achievement gap in half within three years. That's the benchmark the state has set.

Cassellius says over the last two years the state has focused on schools with big gaps in achievement.

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"When you're working with those schools that have been struggling for years, and giving them the kind of support that they need to be successful, supporting our teachers, and looking at where excellence is happening and then sharing that across school districts and across the state you can see accelerated progress like we're seeing here."

Minnesota has one of the widest achievement gaps in the country. Test scores for students of color lag behind white students by as much as 30 points.

Under a 2012 waiver from the federal law No Child Left Behind, the state set up a new measurement system for schools. It takes into consideration how well students are doing on tests, but it also measures how students grow academically during the year, and how different groups of students compare.

Schools with the largest gaps in test scores get extra assistance from math, reading and writing experts located in regional centers around the state. The help comes in the form of teacher training, guidance on new approaches in the classroom, and data analysis.

Susan Burriss is director of the regional center in St. Cloud. Burriss says school districts are paying much closer attention to how students are doing academically, and diving into test scores to improve student performance.

"What we've done in the last couple of years is we've very strategically planned our focus to close that achievement gap by looking at the data in a different way, maybe in an even deeper level that we have in the past."

One of the schools Burriss worked with is Paynesville Elementary, in the town of Paynesville, between St. Cloud and Willmar.

The principal there,Dave Oehrlein, says starting two year ago teachers spent more time with students with the lowest test scores, and after a year their scores ticked up a few points.

"We want to make sure we're spending time on the concepts that they're struggling in. And once they grasp that concept it's easier to move on to the next," he said.

Oehrlein says the school's plan is to continue to offer students extra help, in before and after-school programs, to push scores up even more.

That improvement statewide can't come fast enough for Jim Bartholomew, education policy director for the Minnesota Business Partnership.

"The achievement gap is something we've had for a long time, we've worked a lot to try and eliminate it. We're making progress, but there's just a sense of urgency that we really need to get this done," he said.

Bartholomew also worries the state isn't putting enough emphasis on student mastery of basic subjects, like math and reading.

Cassellius will update lawmakers on the latest data on Minnesota's achievement gap in a meeting at the State Capitol Wednesday morning.