New data: Minn. test scores stagnant, achievement gap unchanged

Brenda Cassellius
Brenda Cassellius
Solvejg Wastvedt | MPR News file

Minnesota students saw little progress in test scores this year, according to data released Thursday by the state Department of Education.

The state's wide academic achievement gaps between white students and students of color also remain virtually unchanged, according to the scores.

They come from the Minnesota Comprehensive Assessments, tests in reading, math and science that most students take every year.

The percent of students considered proficient in reading statewide ticked up one point to 60 percent, and the math proficiency rate for third- to eighth-graders dropped one point to 61 percent.

Nearly 70 percent of white students passed the tests in both subjects. Black students saw proficiency rates around one-third. Similar gaps exist for American Indian and Hispanic students. Those disparities remained virtually unchanged from last year.

"The progress isn't fast enough," said state Education Commissioner Brenda Cassellius.

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Cassellius said the stagnant scores have convinced her that schools can't close achievement gaps on their own. She said factors like poverty, homelessness and hunger stall progress.

"Unless we also deal with the great urgency around all these other outside school factors, we won't be able to move the achievement disparities as quickly as we'd like to," Cassellius said.

She said schools also need more support services like social workers to connect students to resources outside of school. Minnesota spends less of its education money on student support than any other state.

Test scores in the state's two largest urban districts mirrored the statewide trend. St. Paul saw small progress in reading and science scores, with flat results in math. Achievement gaps between white students and students of color widened slightly in reading and remained nearly unchanged in math.

"Clearly we are encouraged by the fact that we did see gains in reading and science, but honestly we are disappointed in the incremental change that we're making," St. Paul Public Schools CEO Michelle Walker said. "I have a lot of concern about the number of our students who are not proficient."

Walker noted that the district did make progress in middle school, especially seventh grade. St. Paul reconfigured middle schools three years ago, and officials say schools are getting used to the change.

In Minneapolis, new superintendent Ed Graff says the district is not pleased with its results either. Minneapolis saw proficiency rates go up 1 percentage point in reading and stay flat in math.

Racial disparities in scores remained large: More than three-quarters of white students passed the tests, compared to less than a quarter of black students. Graff didn't offer too many details as to how he might budge those scores in his first year on the job.

"Those are things that we're going to work on developing over the next several weeks," he said. "In fairness to any kind of situation when you come in it's important to really understand where you are before you can tell people where you're going."

Graff noted that the district has seen recent gains in graduation rates and reducing suspensions.

University of Minnesota professor Michael Rodriguez calls the racial disparities in test scores "not acceptable."

But he, Cassellius and district leaders all stressed that the tests are just one measure of how students are doing.

Rodriguez says scores capture a single point in time, not a student's long-term progress. And he says statewide, the academic picture may not be as bleak as the scores make it seem.

"It's really unfortunate that we expect so much from this single event test score," Rodriguez said. "It's telling us that there's not much movement. But I'm not convinced that single measure is going to be sensitive enough to pick up the kinds of movements that are occurring."

A growing anti-test movement in Minnesota is also casting doubt on scores at some schools. State officials say parents of 2,227 11th-graders opted their children out of state math tests this year, compared to 694 last year. High school reading opt-outs also saw a big increase. Some Minneapolis high schools saw hundreds of students refuse the tests.

Still, the stagnant scores cast doubt on the state's ability to achieve long-term goals set several years ago. State officials aimed to cut the academic achievement gap in half by 2017. With this year's scores, the goal looks farther out of reach. Cassellius says she's not giving up.

"I'm not sure where we'll be next year," she said. "I'm not sure that we will meet our goals of 2017. My goal continue is to continue to progress toward that ultimate goal."