Many Minnesota schools show progress closing achievement gap

Students on the move
Students moved through a stairwell on the first day of school at John F. Kennedy Senior High School in Bloomington Tuesday.
Caroline Yang for MPR News

Updated: 6:20 p.m. | Posted: 1:27 p.m.

Nearly two-thirds of Minnesota schools are on track to lower achievement gaps in reading and math 50 percent by 2017, the Minnesota Department of Education said Tuesday.

That's based on the latest round of accountability scores for all of Minnesota's schools through the Multiple Measurements Ratings system. The system takes more than test scores into account and gives schools credit for student academic growth, even if those students aren't considered proficient on state assessments.

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Schools that score in the bottom 10 percent of the MMR are eligible for help from state education experts.

Minnesota's education Commissioner Brenda Cassellius says the majority of schools getting that assistance since 2011 have improved student scores.

"Schools have been working hard, they're looking deep into their data, and they're figuring out all of the barriers that have been in place for our students and finding ways to remove them," she said.

Only schools eligible for federal education funds because of their high number of low income students get the scores.

Under the MMR system, schools get credit for students who learn a lot from one year to the next, even if they're still not considered proficient on state assessment tests.

"We want to be sure that educators know that these kids are actually growing and you are contributing to their growth as they are marching toward proficiency," Cassellius said.

The MMR gives schools student-level data, something Cassellius says helps teachers identify students who need the most help.

Six so-called Centers of Excellence scattered throughout the state work with teachers and administrators in struggling schools to improve student performance.

"Our rural schools have really embraced that kind of support and have been doing tremendous, and some of our first ring suburbs as well. We're really excited about the work we're able to do with our schools," Cassellius said. "We still have some work to do in Minneapolis and St. Paul and we'll continue to support them however we can."

Both the Minneapolis and St. Paul districts have decided to work with struggling schools on their own, using their own experts and without in-school support from the state.

Sherry Carlstrom, director of Title I federal programs for the St. Paul district, says St. Paul is using a total of $3 million in federal grants this year, and its own experts, to try to improve test scores in struggling schools.

She says the district isn't going it alone though and coordinates its work with state officials.

"It's not that we know everything and it's not they know everything," Carlstrom said, "but we get together and we take everything that we can learn from each other and we try to get the best from each other and we try to get the best from each other and stay up on our practice."

The statewide teachers union Education Minnesota isn't opposed to state help for schools considered struggling.

However union president Denise Specht says that works best when teachers are involved in the process, rather than a top-down approach.

Correction (Sept. 2, 2015): An earlier version of this story incorrectly characterized the grants that the St. Paul School District is using to improve test scores. The district has received two federal grants, one of which is distributed by the state, that total $3 million.