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Gaps seen in Minnesota school test scores: Analysis shows discrepancies between student groups

ST. PAUL — Minnesota has made incremental progress the past four years closing some of the state's most troubling achievement gaps, but stagnant and worsening academic performance by several groups is raising alarms.

A Pioneer Press analysis of the results of the 2018 Minnesota Comprehensive Assessments, or MCAs, found while students of color have slowly improved their reading proficiency since 2015, overall gains made in math during that period were the result of the state's results declining overall.

Moreover, math and reading proficiency among students who are poor, learning English or have special needs has declined almost across the board.

"It's not enough," said Dianne Binns, the St. Paul NAACP president. "The progress that is being made is not enough to move the needle. I don't see anything to jump for joy about."

Last week, the Minnesota Department of Education unveiled a new system for grading Minnesota schools. It will measure more attributes about school performance than ever before.

In addition to test scores the state collects data on academic growth, progress with students learning English, routine school attendance and graduation rates. State leaders hope that information will help them uncover why some students are struggling to learn.

Scores flat, declining

Standardized tests like the MCAs have long been the way Minnesota grades schools and the latest results don't give education leaders much to cheer about.

Students take the tests in reading and math annually in third- through eighth-grade while science skills are measured once in elementary and middle school.

High schoolers also take reading, math and science MCAs, but scoring well is not a requirement to graduate.

Reading scores have remained flat overall over the past four years with students of color slowly closing some long-standing achievement gaps. The good news mostly ends there.

Math scores declined this year with any gap closure made by minority students mostly being attributed to the overall decline in performance. Science scores also fell this year across the board.

Some gaps getting worse

Minnesota students that are struggling the most are those with some of the most complex special needs. English learners, students receiving special education services, those who are low-income or are homeless often have the lowest MCA scores in the state.

In some ways the gaps are getting worse.

The gap in reading and math scores for students learning English grew by more than three percentage points between 2015 and 2018. Just 20 percent of English learners scored proficient in math and 14 percent are meeting standards in reading.

Minnesota's population of students with limited English proficiency has grown dramatically over the last decade. There are now 73,128 English learners in public schools, about 8.5 percent of the student population, an increase of about 10,000 students since 2008.

It's obviously a challenge for students learning English to perform well on math and reading tests and state leaders have made tracking their progress a key part of the state's new accountability system.

For Henry Jiménez, executive director of the state Council on Latino Affairs, the growing focus on English learners is important. He notes that student populations in the metro and in rural Minnesota have become increasingly diverse and school leaders need more support to adequately educate those pupils.

"Any system that would help us pinpoint growth or weaknesses, we would welcome a system like that," Jiménez said."That is the right track."

Cause for alarm?

Communities of color are not the only ones concerned about Minnesota's nation-leading academic achievement gap. Educators, state lawmakers, community groups and business leaders have long characterized the gap as one of the state's biggest challenges.

This year's results caused many groups to raise an alarm.

Charlie Weaver, executive director of the Minnesota Business Partnership, said continuing to fail to adequately educate the state's increasingly diverse population will hurt the state's economic competitiveness in the long-term. "This is an urgent challenge that demands reform," he said.

"The fact is that Minnesota cannot succeed in a global economy if only 60 percent of our students can read or do math at grade level," Weaver said in a statement. "At a time when talent is in short supply and employers are desperate for workers, we cannot afford to continue to fail 40 percent of our students — many of whom are students of color."

Will a fresh look help?

Work to close the academic achievement gap in Minnesota has been a top priority for policymakers for well over a decade. The federal No Child Left Behind law, and the required standardized tests that went with it, exposed deep inequities here and across the nation in the quality of education different student groups were receiving.

Minnesota's new North Star accountability system was described by Brenda Cassellius, the state education commissioner, as an evolution of the best parts of the the state's past two grading systems.

Besides collecting more information, state leaders promise to bring new transparency to how resources for struggling students are allocated and give parents more ways to provide input on how schools can better teach their children.

Binns, the St. Paul NAACP president, likes those ideas, but she cautions that there's more to the achievement gap than what happens inside school buildings. Until there are more opportunities for reliable, good paying jobs in communities of color, families are going to struggle.

"I know people working one, two, three minimum wage jobs just to make ends meet," Binns said. "How are they going to have time to help with homework or do anything like that? We have to find ways to address those issues or we will never close the achievement gap."

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