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by Alejandra Matos and Glenn Howatt in the Star Tribune on Thursday, July 30, 2015

New statewide standardized test results show that Minnesota students made no overall improvement in math, reading or science this year, despite pledges from many state and local school leaders to improve test scores.

In reading, nearly 60 percent of students mastered state standards, compared with 59 percent in 2014. In math, 60 percent of students met math standards, down from nearly 62 percent in 2014. There was also little progress in closing the state’s persistent achievement gap between white and minority students. White students continued to outperform students of color by more than 20 percentage points on average.

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Minnesota Education Commissioner Brenda Cassellius said she was not satisfied with the results, but added that they do not paint a complete picture of student achievement.

“This is one measure at one point in time,” she said. “It does not look at students who move from not proficient to partially proficient.”

The stagnant Minnesota Comprehensive Assessment scores come after a testing season plagued with computer glitches, multiple attacks by computer hackers and other testing problems.

Cassellius said there is no statistical evidence that the technical glitches had any impact on student test scores.

Cassellius said she believes the state is seeing stagnant scores in reading because the test is still relatively new and teachers are getting used to the more rigorous curriculum. The state changed its reading exam in 2013 and saw a dramatic drop in scores, from 75 percent proficiency to 58 percent. Scores have gone up only 1 percentage point since then.

The exam is measuring more critical thinking skills and it requires students to read and comprehend longer nonfiction passages, Cassellius said.

“Reading is an area where we are working toward,” Cassellius said. “As teachers master the standards and get better, it will work.”

As for the math test scores, which haven’t seen any major changes since 2011, Cassellius said she is working on digging deeper to find out why the state is staying flat. Cassellius anticipates the state will offer more training for math teachers to help spur growth.

The standardized tests were taken by about 500,000 elementary and high school students this spring. They’re used to measure not only student achievement but also teacher performance in some districts. They’re also used to chart the progress of schools and districts and to monitor school improvement and accountability.

Cassellius cautioned that the test scores fail to measure the academic growth that students may be making.

But the test scores underscored the stubborn nature of the achievement gap.

In reading, 67 percent of white students met or exceeded reading standards, compared with 34 percent of black students and 36 percent of Hispanic students. The gap was particularly stark among 11th-graders’ math scores. Fifty-five percent of white students tested proficient, compared with 18 of black students and 24 percent of Hispanic students.

The fresh results come as state officials have pledged to cut the achievement gap in half by 2017.

Critics said the weak showing highlights the need for dramatic changes to the education system.

“Our state leaders need to take seriously the fact that we are not seeing progress at the rate that parents and community members would expect,” said Daniel Sellers, executive director of MinnCAN, a group pushing for education changes.

R.T. Rybak, the executive director of Generation Next, a group focused on closing the achievement gap in Minneapolis and St. Paul, said there are schools in both districts that are “bright spots.” Both districts have some the largest disparities in the state. Rybak said the challenge is replicating programs that work at individual schools across the districts.

“We believe the number of children reading below grade level is shocking and should require immediate action,” Rybak said. “No one should look at these numbers and feel good.”

St. Paul scores dip

There was little to no progress made in boosting Minneapolis and St. Paul test scores.

In St. Paul Public Schools, the state’s second-largest school district, 37 percent of its students were considered proficient in math, down 3 percentage points from a year ago. Achievement fell off most dramatically for the district’s white and American Indian students.

Superintendent Valeria Silva said in a statement that “SPPS has farther to go and we want stronger results.”

No explanations were given Wednesday for the drop in math proficiency, but the district plans to look at areas of the curriculum that might give students trouble as well ramp up teacher training, said Michelle Walker, the district’s chief executive.

Two years ago, the district underwent a reorganization that put an emphasis on community schools — with students moving about in ways that officials said may have hurt test scores a year ago. This year there was greater stability, but Walker said it still was too early to expect “huge leaps” in performance.

“We’re still in transition in our district,” she said. “We’re still putting new pieces in place.”

The Minneapolis School District failed to meet lofty goals for the school year as part of a new academic plan. The district wanted to see a 5 percent increase in math and reading scores, instead it saw a 1 percent increase in math and a slight decrease in reading. For students of color, district leaders wanted to see 8 percent gains. Those students saw, at most, 1 percent gains.

Interim Superintendent Michael Goar said there is room for improvement, but the district is “excited that our strategies are showing positive results.” He said the majority of the district’s most troubled schools made improvements in achievement.

“Our strategy is working,” Goar said. “I am eager to get our kids and teachers back so that we can build upon what we have done this year.”

A big unknown is whether the computer glitches hampered students taking the test.

Denise Specht, the president of the state’s teachers’ union, said she is not confident that the scores truly measure student achievement after all the problems.

“If I were a parent, teacher or administrator, I would be skeptical of the results,” Specht said. “There is no way to guarantee that they are accurate and they are accurately measuring students’ progress.”

The department has studied the problem. But the study did not look at the effects it had on students who were booted off while testing or who were having issues with the website’s calculator. Cassellius said it will be up to individual districts and schools to determine the impact of those issues. The state is poised to reach a settlement with the testing company, Pearson, over the glitches in the coming weeks.

Some parents allowed their children to opt out the of the MCAs, which has become an appealing option for parents increasingly critical of the high-stakes tests.

Barbara Wornson, executive director of the Upper Mississippi Academy, said the St. Paul charter school had several parents opt out of testing this year.

“I couldn’t say how that affected scores, but we’re a small school, so it’s possible it did,” she said.


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