Statewide test scores show Minnesota students are improving their skills, but they still struggle to meet math standards and a persistent gap remains between the achievement of poor or minority students and their white counterparts.
The state Department of Education released 2012 proficiency test results, Wednesday, Aug. 1, that provide a first glimpse at student achievement. Later this month, the state will unveil its new method for grading schools, called the "multiple measurement rating" that promises to dissect student performance in new ways.
"We see the trajectory is positive," said Brenda Cassellius, education commissioner. "We are quiet pleased with that. But we're not satisfied until every student is proficient."
Overall, students made gains at nearly every grade-level statewide. Some of the largest improvements were in middle school with seventh- and eighth-graders' math scores jumping more than five points to about 60 percent proficient. Statewide, American Indian, Asian, Hispanic, black students and those who qualify for free or reduced priced meals all saw gains in achievement.
In St. Paul, math and reading proficiency edged up only slightly a year into Superintendent Valeria Silva's Strong Schools, Strong Communities plan to raise achievement. The state's second-largest district did not make a major dent in closing the achievement gap -- a key focus of the three-year plan.
Statewide, a broad gap also remains and, in some instances, is increasing.
The gap between the scores of white and black students grew slightly in reading and math, and white and Hispanic students saw similar disparities in reading proficiency.
"We are unfortunately going in the wrong direction," said Daniel Sellers, executive director of the Minnesota Campaign for Achievement Now, or MinnCAN, an education reform advocate.
"We know the achievement gap is not only the largest in the country, but it flies in the face of what Minnesotans stand for."
Cassellius acknowledged the challenges that districts face in closing the achievement gap.
"For every parent who is in one of those subgroups, we are absolutely not doing enough," she said.
High school math continues to be the toughest benchmark. Statewide scores on 11th-grade math assessments declined from last year.
Thousands of students graduate each year without being proficient in math thanks to waivers granted by the state. The education department doesn't track how many students graduate because of these waivers, but in some districts as many as one in three would fail to graduate without one.
Minnesota has some of the toughest math standards in the country. A new task force is examining possible changes to the proficiency and graduation tests. The goal is to better align achievement tests with what students need to be ready for college and a career, Cassellius said.
Jim Bartholomew, education policy director for the Minnesota Business Partnership, said state math scores, which historically have declined steadily between third grade and high school, suggest a larger problem.
"That is an unmistakable trend that should be raising some red flags," Bartholomew said. "To the degree that 60 percent of kids at the high school are unable to perform at grade level, it raises some questions about what is going on there. We shouldn't go and change the test because we don't like what it is telling us."
ST. PAUL GAINS
In St. Paul, math proficiency edged up less than 1 percent to about 41 percent. The district found itself lagging 20 percentage points behind Minnesota's average proficiency across all grades. Just 27 percent of district high school students scored proficient on the 11th-grade math assessment.
About 57 percent of students districtwide scored proficient in reading -- a little more than a 1 percent gain -- and the district touted holding its ground after a bracing 4 percent gain last year. A number of schools -- including Open World Learning Community, Phalen Lake Hmong Studies and Como Park Senior High -- posted double-digit proficiency increases in math or reading.
"We're pleased we've sustained the gains from last year, particularly in reading," said Michelle Walker, the district's chief of staff.
The goal of narrowing the gap between minority and white students remained elusive. In reading, slight gains in proficiency among the district's students of color were matched or outdone by white students, with the widest gap -- almost 40 percentage points -- between white and black students.
In math, white students gained a percentage point in proficiency while most other racial groups lost some ground or held steady.
Experts generally agree it's unrealistic to expect instant payoff from wholesale efforts to raise achievement.
Still, officials said they had hoped the year would bring them closer to their proficiency targets. The plan sets a goal of 75 percent proficiency in reading and math for all students by 2014.
Officials said they believe the district efforts are poised to gain traction in the next couple of years. This coming school year, elementary students will spend 15 to 30 additional minutes on math each day.
State education officials are hopeful their new "multiple measurement rating" grading system will provide more sophisticated information about the progress of students -- including those who are not considered proficient. The system, approved as an alternative to the No Child Left Behind law, includes measurements of proficiency, student growth, reducing the achievement gap and graduation.
"I believe it gives better, more accurate and precise data to teachers that they can use," Cassellius said.