Math, reading scores stall in latest round of Minnesota testing

After another round of disappointing standardized test results, Education Commissioner Brenda Cassellius said the state may never boost the academic performance of students of color without first addressing the outside factors that hold children ...

After another round of disappointing standardized test results, Education Commissioner Brenda Cassellius said the state may never boost the academic performance of students of color without first addressing the outside factors that hold children back in school.

Overall, the pass rate on the state’s annual reading test was 60 percent this spring, up three-tenths of a percentage point. In math, 61 percent scored proficient, down six-tenths of a point.



Despite ambitious goals and targeted interventions in low-income, low-scoring schools, the state’s public schools in recent years have made virtually no progress on closing achievement gaps between student groups. Black students, for example, failed this year’s math and reading tests at twice the rate of white students.

In releasing this year’s Minnesota Comprehensive Assessment results Thursday, Cassellius said she’s increasingly certain that schools can’t do it alone.

“The only way we will close these stubborn gaps is if we address with equal urgency the opportunity gaps outside of school that impact children’s likelihood of school success,” Cassellius said.

“That means paying attention to and supporting families from birth, ensuring they have access to high-quality childcare and early education, stable housing, economic opportunity, fair wages that support families and health care when they need it.”

Jim Bartholomew, education policy director with the Minnesota Business Partnership, agreed that quality preschool helps, but he said schools alone can do a lot to make up for the challenges kids face at home.

“To argue that schools can’t educate kids because something else in our society isn’t working really begs the question, well, what can schools do?” Bartholomew said.

He said schools must take a greater interest in learning from those that are making a difference for students from historically low-performing groups.

“We have many public schools in our state and nationally that show that all kids can be successful despite some very challenging circumstances,” he said. “Why are we not doing a better job of talking to and listening and learning from them?”


Michael Rodriguez, a professor of educational measurement at the University of Minnesota, said Cassellius is right that outside factors loom large on student performance. He said the state has made smart policy decisions to try to close achievement gaps, but the MCA results don’t reflect that.

“We haven’t seen it in the outcomes, and that’s really frustrating,” he said. “This is not just the Minnesota story. We see this nationally.”

Still, Rodriguez said schools can improve outcomes for low-performing student groups by bringing the community into the schools, making instruction more culturally relevant to the students and demonstrating that education leads to greater opportunities.

“We see real movement when that happens,” he said.

Mixed results in the Twin Cities Public district schools in St. Paul and Minneapolis followed the statewide trend this spring with modest gains in reading and setbacks in math.

St. Paul posted a 39 percent pass rate in reading, up 1.4 points over last year. Minneapolis is up eight-tenths of a point, to 43 percent.

In math, excluding grade 11, St. Paul’s proficiency rate of 38 percent was down 1.8 points from last year. Minneapolis is down six-tenths of a point, to 45 percent.

Michelle Walker, the St. Paul district’s chief executive officer, said the results were mostly disappointing.


“I have a lot of concern about the number of students who still are not proficient in our district,” she said.

Walker said stronger test scores in the district’s middle schools indicate they’re getting comfortable with the grade 6-8 format, three years after making the switch from junior highs. And she said big gains in high school graduation rates in recent years suggest the high schools have strategies that may work for the lower grades, as well.

Walker said last year that an aging curriculum might help explain low scores in math. The curriculum is up for review next school year.

St. Paul boosts opt-out record While test scores are flat, the number of students skipping the tests altogether has grown dramatically.

The trend is most evident with the 11th grade math test. This spring, 4,228 Minnesota juniors either opted out with a parent’s permission, didn’t show up or otherwise failed to complete the math test. That’s one for every 13 students who did complete the test, and a 167 percent increase over the previous year.

Minneapolis Public Schools accounted for 30 percent of those opt-outs and test refusals, but the movement is also catching on in St. Paul, where the teachers union has raised awareness about students’ options. This year, 525 St. Paul juniors skipped the math MCA, up from 71 the previous year.

“The record number of students opting out of tests this year reflects the growing sentiment by teachers, parents and students that one single test is not an effective measure of student knowledge,” Cassellius said.

Denise Specht, who heads the state teachers union, said the MCAs offer little in the way of useful information. Parents can’t see what their kids got wrong, check the test questions for bias or find out how much time they spend on test preparation.

“Until parents receive that information, the best way for them to track the progress of their children is easy – ask their teachers,” she said.

Walker said schools and families need information about how students are progressing.

“I think that’s valuable information for students and families to have,” she said.

Related Topics: EDUCATION
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