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Minnesota math scores continue to decline; achievement gaps persist

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Math standards
Minnesota's math standards hang at the front of a high school classroom in Bloomington in June 2013.
Tim Post | MPR News 2013 file

The number of Minnesota students considered proficient in math fell for the fourth year in a row during the most recent school year.

According to newly released data from the Minnesota Department of Education, only 53.9 percent of students met or exceeded state standards for math proficiency in 2019. In 2016, close to 60 percent of Minnesota students met or exceeded those standards.

Reading scores in Minnesota have remained more steady. Just over 58 percent of Minnesota students met state standards for reading proficiency this year – that’s down from approximately 59 percent last year.

Minnesota's new education commissioner, Mary Cathryn Ricker, warned against focusing too much on the negative numbers.

"Too often we condense our students down to one single data point, which eliminates everything about our students that make them who they are," Ricker said. "My promise to our students is to continue seeing their strengths, persist alongside them and tackle the barriers that stand in their way."

This year's numbers point to Minnesota's persistent struggle with gaps in achievement among various student groups.

For white students, 66.6 percent met reading proficiency standards, compared to about 34 percent of black students and 38 percent of Hispanic students.

In math, approximately 63 percent of white students met state standards, compared to just over 26 percent of black students and 31 percent of Hispanic students.

Minnesota's education commissioners for decades have vowed to close gaps between white students and students of color, only to see that goal frustrated. Ricker has also said closing the achievement gap is a priority for her.

"Gaps need to be closed," Ricker said. "Minnesota students face gaps in learning, housing, household income, health and more. That's why I'm committed to finding ways to serve the whole child, so all children have the support they need to succeed in the classroom."

University of Minnesota professor Michael Rodriguez said it would be highly unusual to see a dramatic change in state test scores in a single year.

"Because they're kind of like averages, they're really stable,” Rodriguez said. “It's really difficult to move an average over time, and especially difficult to move an average in a single year … but it's over time that that information becomes more valuable.” He said the important task is to understand “trends over a number of years.”

The test score results come from the Minnesota Comprehensive Assessments -- tests students take each year in reading, math and science. Rodriguez said they’re designed to show how well Minnesota schools are serving their students.

"The test scores are indicators of the school's ability to provide access to state standards -- so the extent to which the schools are providing high-quality instruction that are standards-based, and the extent to which students have access to that,” he said. “Because once students have access to that high-quality instruction ... we should see that reflected in the state test scores."

Rodriguez also said the scores, while important, only provide so much information.

"The test scores tell us where we're at, and that is super important,” he said. “It's the only piece of information that we have that is consistent across schools. But that's all they do. They tell us where we're at. They don't tell us how we got there,or what to do next, and that's really what schools need."

Ricker has said she wants to bring change to Minnesota's education system. She pointed at areas where Minnesota students excel, including increased graduation rates among all students and a large increase in the number of black and Native American students taking the ACT test.

She's also pointed to Minnesota's efforts to recognize student achievement outside of what state tests are designed to measure, including the Minnesota Seal of Biliteracy, which has recognized the bilingualism of more than 4,600 students since 2015.

"Our students take advantage of every opportunity brought to them. When we open the doors, our students bust through them," Ricker said. "If we keep doing the same things, we will keep getting the same results. I am committed to reimagining what education can be in the state of Minnesota. And that includes resisting the urge to rely on test scores as our sole indicator of progress."