Minnesota's reading and math scores barely budge

The minuscule progress on proficiency goals -- and the state's achievement gap -- frustrates and worries schools.

By EMILY JOHNS, GLENN HOWATT and SARAH LEMAGIE, Star Tribune staff writers
Thursday, July 01, 2010

Minnesota students have not made much progress on state reading and math tests since last year, and the state's stubborn achievement gap hasn't budged, according to data released Thursday by the Minnesota Department of Education.

On required tests, 66.1 percent of the state's public school students were proficient in math, compared with 64 percent last year. In reading, 72.5 percent of the state's students were proficient, up from 72.1 percent last year.

"We're making progress, but it's slower than we'd like to see," said Dave Heistad, director of research, evaluation and assessment for the Minneapolis Public Schools, where the number of students proficient in reading went up by about 1 percentage point, and in math by about 2 points. "But when you look at how far behind students of color and students in poverty are, we just can't settle for incremental growth."

Uncertainty surrounds the federal No Child Left Behind law that mandates the state tests. The 2002 law was originally supposed to be reauthorized by Congress in 2007, but that still hasn't happened.

The law requires that every student in the nation reach "proficiency" by 2014, a goal that many say is impossible. Minnesota Education Commissioner Alice Seagren said Wednesday that the state's progress isn't sufficient to meet that standard "unless we see some extraordinary changes."

The No Child Left Behind law is the most recent incarnation of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, signed into law in 1965 by President Lyndon Johnson.

Requirements date to 2002

According to the 2002 reauthorization, states must test how student groups are faring. If one group at a school -- such as poor students -- fails to meet state targets, the school is labeled as not making "adequate yearly progress." In Minnesota, the required tests come in the form of the Minnesota Comprehensive Assessments-II; the state will release this year's list of schools falling behind in August.

For schools receiving federal Title I money for low-income students, failure means penalties that increase over time, from having to offer transfers and tutoring, to restructuring a school. The required proficiency level increases each year.

Some schools in the metro area have proved adept at working with low-income children and children still learning English, who usually don't score as well as the rest of the state's students.

Minneapolis charter Cedar Riverside Community School, for example, almost exclusively serves the children of Somali immigrants who live in poverty and don't speak English at home. Yet, this year, the school did better in math than any other with high poverty levels. Three-quarters of its students were proficient on state math tests and almost 60 percent were proficient on state reading tests.

The school has been open since 1993. It has a focus on service learning that gives students hands-on experience, said director Ricky White. It's located at the Cedar Riverside Plaza housing complex, where many of the students live, so parent involvement is easier.

"Because we have established relationships with students and their families, we get 100 percent attendance at conferences and parent meetings," White said. "And we don't just talk about the field trips we're going on, we speak in depth in regards to what we're doing in math, what we're doing in reading, here are things you can help your children do, and if you can't, come see us, we'll help you through it."

Some schools, like Hidden Oaks Middle School in the Prior Lake-Savage district, outperformed Cedar Riverside. But compared to similar schools with few students in poverty, they aren't doing so well.

Hidden Oaks Principal Sasha Kuznetsov said he had "mixed feelings" about the test results, which showed three-quarters of the students being proficient in reading. "I was shocked that I did not see growth [in reading], knowing that the teachers worked so hard," he said.

The school rolled out a new language arts curriculum last fall, and the normal process of adjusting to the new lessons could be one reason it didn't do better in reading, Kuznetsov said.

Focus was on math last year

Last year, the school focused on improving in math, he said. Math teachers got extra training and held one-on-one conferences to go over test results with struggling students. The school also revamped its afternoon math tutoring, dropping a computerized program that didn't appear to work and giving students more direct instruction from teachers.

"The strategies that we did in the area of math worked," Kuznetsov said. "We're going to take on that challenge now in the area of reading."

The St. Paul school district failed in its bold effort to raise achievement in each of its student groups by 10 percentage points. In fact, the district made no improvement in reading and logged only a 3-percentage-point gain in math.

District leaders said they were disappointed, but aren't sorry about setting such an ambitious goal.

"I don't think we want to apologize for that," said Suzanne Kelly, St. Paul's chief of staff, who was interim superintendent when the district set the goal.

At Dakota County Alternative Learning Center, not one of the 50 students who took the 11th-grade state math test was deemed proficient.

It's a figure that worries John Christiansen, superintendent of Intermediate School District 917, which runs the center. The school has tried to beef up math instruction, even adding math concepts to language arts classes and a construction trades course in which students build a house.

But Christiansen pointed out that teens at the center don't represent a cross section of the typical student body. Most enroll at the center after falling far behind at the schools they entered as freshmen.

But educators shouldn't be discouraged by a "disappointing and frustrating" lack of significant progress, said Bernadeia Johnson, superintendent of the Minneapolis Public Schools.

"For every school that makes progress, there is hope. And for every time we identify a strategy that is successful for a group of students, there is hope. ... You can't let disappointment or frustration immobilize you. "

Staff writer Gregory Patterson contributed to this report Emily Johns • 612-673-7460 • [email protected] Glenn Howatt • 612-673-7192 • [email protected] Sarah Lemagie • 952-882-9016 • [email protected]

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