Minnesota students continue to see pandemic impacts to math and reading

Desks sit empty as a teacher talks in front of a screen.
Fourth grade teacher Kelly Brant stands in her classroom as she talks to her students who were learning remotely Jan. 19, 2021 at Park Brook Elementary School in Brooklyn Park.
Christine T. Nguyen | MPR News

Updated: 4:35 p.m. | Posted: 10:27 a.m.

New state test data released Thursday, shows the majority of Minnesota students are below state proficiency standards in math, and just over half are proficient in reading — a sharp decline since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Just under 52 percent of students met or exceeded reading standards — a drop of eight percentage points since schools moved to distance learning at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. Fewer than 46 percent of students statewide met or exceeded math standards — a drop of 10 percentage points from 2019.  

Minnesota schools were far less able to give students of color what they needed to learn than white students. Test scores revealed deep inequities along lines of race, English language learner status and household income.

This year’s North Star Accountability test scores are pulled from 2022 Minnesota Comprehensive Assessments (MCAs) and the Minnesota Test of Academic Skills (MTAS used for some students with disabilities).  

The state department of education has identified 371 schools, including 15 entire school districts for training and support over the next three years based on their results from standardized tests, graduation rates and attendance, among other indicators. 

“We know our schools are in need of ongoing support as they work to meet our students where they are now and take them to where they need to be by the end of this school year,” Education Commissioner Heather Mueller said in a statement. “That’s why MDE is strengthening our partnership with school communities to provide them with the support they need so all students can have the successful school year they deserve.” 

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Schools identified for support will get training from MDE and its Regional Centers of Excellence with guidance on the science of math and reading instruction. There’s also an emphasis on social and emotional learning and training, which many Minnesota students and educators have indicated has been a real and increasing challenge. 

“It builds not only a repository of best practices, but also helps to provide the professional development in real time in the settings of the schools and in partnership with school leaders,” Mueller said. “(It) gives us the opportunity to partner deeply with our schools, to meet them also where they are and help them move to where they need to get to.” 

In St. Paul, cautious optimism

In St. Paul, Minnesota’s second largest district, there were slight gains across the board in 2022 MCA test scores, compared to 2021. Thirty-five percent of students showed proficiency in reading — up 2 percentage points from 2020-21, but down 5 percentage points from 2018-19. Only a quarter of St. Paul students tested as proficient in math — a gain of 4 percentage points from 2020-21, but down from nearly a third of students in 2018-19. 

“We’re cautiously optimistic because we did see some increases — not back to pre-pandemic levels, so there is still a lot of work to do. But we’re hoping that this is the first sign of what we hope is an upward trend,” said Stacey Gray Akyea, Chief of Equity, Strategy & Innovation for St. Paul Public Schools.  

St. Paul has been using COVID-19 relief dollars to help students with academic recovery. Gray Akyea says one strategy that’s been helpful is funding an extra reading teacher in elementary — often third grade classrooms and some middle school classrooms. 

“All they do are small group instruction on things that students need,” Gray Akyea said. “That is kind of on our watchlist for something that could be extremely effective.”

The district is also focusing on specialists who can help students with targeted math instruction. And they’re shifting their approach to credit recovery, hoping that making those interventions flexible and timed during the school day will help more students graduate. 

St. Paul, like other Minnesota districts, struggles to equitably instruct students. Gray Akyea said the problem is systemic and the solution also needs to be systemic with attention to enrollment, school supports and staffing among other priorities.

“The pandemic was very hard on all of our students. Some students (fared) much worse than others. What we have to do as a system is understand the systemic inequities that exist in our district, in our schools and classrooms, in meeting rooms and hallways, and at the same time we’ve got to learn to provide the wraparound in the core and the intervention that is very specific to the needs of the learner. It’s very, very difficult, but it’s something we need to continue to work toward,” Gray Akyea said.

Inequalities

Minnesota’s education system has some of the worst gaps in the country between white students and students of color. This year’s test results continued to show those gaps — sometimes by dozens of percentage points. 

“For many, this data is likely to be a wake-up call,” said Matt Shaver, who’s policy director at EdAllies, an education advocacy group. “Students and educators have faced an ongoing uphill battle due to everything from health to staffing combining to create another challenging year.” 

Editor’s Note (Aug. 25, 2022): A previous version of this report contained incomplete data on scores. The above story has been updated.

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