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Minnesota still ranks low in more holistic look at school achievement data

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Minnesota is second only to Wisconsin in the gap between graduation rates for white students and students of color as of 2017.
David Pennington via Unsplash file

When we set out to cover the issue of the achievement gap, we found coverage of it in the MPR archives dating back to at least 1995. Peter Hutchinson, the superintendent of Minneapolis Public Schools at the time, called it the "learning gap." 

For decades, Minnesota schools have been struggling to close what we now call the achievement gap. 

There's been only modest success. The latest numbers from the Minnesota Department of Education show while graduation rates are up, test scores are stagnant or down. Last spring 88 percent of white students graduated high school in four years, but only 67 percent of African-American and Hispanic students graduated, and 51 percent of American Indian students graduated. 

Test scores show a much wider gap. For white students, almost 67 percent met reading proficiency standards, compared to about 34 percent of black students and 38 percent of Hispanic students. In math, the gap is even wider. Approximately 63 percent of white students met state standards, compared to just over 26 percent of black students and 31 percent of Hispanic students.

Professor Robert Balfanz studies this issue, and has been looking at these Minnesota numbers. He's director of the Everyone Graduates Center at Johns Hopkins University School of Education. 

"It's second only to Wisconsin for the gap that remains between the black graduation rate and the white graduation rate," he said

He likes to use a measure called the "secondary school achievement index."  It takes into account math and reading scores, on-time graduation rates and the number of students doing well on Advance Placement tests.  During the period from 2011 to 2017, Minnesota did a bit better by those measures, but is still in the bottom third of states.  

Balfanz said the big issue outside the classroom is poverty.  

"Poverty makes it harder to get to school every day; it can make it harder to focus in class," he said. “That leads to students not getting their work done and handed in on time, with a negative impact on grades and scores.”  

Sometimes it comes down to funding. For example, closing reading gaps requires more personnel to tutor smaller groups, or work one-on-one with students. According to Balfanz, "there are no ways to do that that don't cost more dollars." 

Balfanz cited another factor in closing the achievement gap: teacher turnover and burnout. That needs investment in and attention on creating environments that work for the adults, too.

To hear more from Balfanz, listen to his conversation with MPR News host Tom Crann using the audio player above.