Minnesota math performance slipping; reading up slightly

Students on the move
Slightly more students statewide passed reading tests, but math results show a steady downward trend that has been continuing for the last four years.
Caroline Yang for MPR News 2015

Updated 4:20 p.m. | Posted 10:17 a.m.

Students in Minnesota made only incremental progress in state test scores again this year. Slightly more students statewide passed reading tests, but math results show a steady downward trend that has been continuing for the last four years.

This year's results also fall short of a goal Minnesota set in 2012 to cut academic achievement gaps in half by 2017.

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Students considered proficient on math tests statewide dropped from 59.4 percent in 2016 to 58.6 percent this year. The reading proficiency rate ticked up less than 1 percentage point, to 60.1 percent.

"Test scores are just one part of the picture," state education commissioner Brenda Cassellius said in a statement. "It's frustrating to see test scores slowly increasing over time, but there's more to providing a student with a well-rounded education than can be seen in a test."

The results come from the Minnesota Comprehensive Assessments, tests students take each year in reading, math and science.

Students take math and reading tests in grades three through eight and once in high school. Science is tested in fifth and eighth grade and once in high school.

Science proficiency declined slightly this year to 53.9 percent statewide. Over the past five years, however, science proficiency has gradually risen.

Science results typically attract less attention than reading and math scores because science is not part of the state's evaluation system for labeling low-performing schools.

Statewide proficiency gaps between students of color and white students have widened for every racial group in both reading and math since the state set its 2012 gap-reduction goal.

But state education officials said some schools did meet the goal. In reading, 12 percent of schools cut achievement gaps in half for all racial groups, as well as low-income students and non-English speakers.

Fourteen percent met that mark in math. Just under a quarter of schools had all but one student group meeting the goal.

"When we look at individual school results we can see success at those schools, and one of the biggest things we'll be doing is going out, analyzing the data even deeper, and finding those bright spots and finding out what are they doing to get results faster for kids," Cassellius said.

MCA results are one of the main measurements Minnesota uses to label schools in need of improvement. But some experts question the metric's usefulness.

"The schools are limited because at the end of the year — like now — they get their test scores. And the community gets the test scores. But there's no information in those test scores as to, How did we get there?" University of Minnesota professor Michael Rodriguez said.

Rodriguez said measuring school practices like teacher training, course offerings and parent engagement would be more helpful. But the federal government largely determines metrics for school accountability, and test scores are still the centerpiece of federal requirements.

Minnesota also lacks comprehensive data on some of those other school practices.

"We don't have an accounting system to capture the data that is really going to make a difference," Rodriguez said.