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by Beena Raghavendran and Alejandra Matos in the Star Tribune on Wednesday, October 28, 2015

Math and reading proficiency scores for Minnesota fourth-graders this year have dipped from their record highs in 2013, according to the results of a national test released Wednesday.

In 2013, fourth-graders in Minnesota posted the highest scores on the National Assessment of Education Progress (NAEP), considered the best comparison of students from state to state in the country. But scores for both reading and math dropped in fourth grade this year.

The state also saw no significant improvement in reading or math scores for eighth-graders in Minnesota.

Still the state continues to outperform others across the country, especially in math. But state officials say Minnesota’s educators should not be content because large gaps in achievement show many poor and minority students are not meeting standards.

“We’ve been complacent with being at the top, and what we have to do is look deeper,” Minnesota Education Commissioner Brenda Cassellius said. “Underneath being at the top, there are a lot of kids who are underachieving, and we really have to address that.”

The NAEP is given every two years to a representative sample of fourth- and eighth-graders across the country in order to fairly compare student achievement over time and across the country. Nearly 10,000 students in Minnesota took the test.

The stagnant scores point to the need for more early literacy resources, and the persistent achievement gaps in the state are also concerning, she said.

Gov. Mark Dayton and Cassellius have been pushing for universal preschool, which they say will help students read at grade level by third grade.

“We can continue to talk about [the gap] or we can get serious and get kids ready for kindergarten,” she said.

Achievement gap

Daniel Sellers, executive director of education reform group MinnCAN, said the NAEP assessment is the best way to compare Minnesota students to their peers in other states.

He said that in Minnesota, the achievement gap between white students and students of color needs more work. That’s reflected in the scores, where the difference between black and white students in fourth-grade reading grew to a 37-point gap in 2015. Nationally, the average gap is 26 points.

The achievement gap in Minnesota was mostly unchanged on eighth-grade reading and fourth- and eighth-grade math tests.

Minnesota generally does well on the NAEP test, even though the trend-monitoring test is broader than Minnesota state standardized exams, said Michael Rodriguez, a professor of educational measurement at the University of Minnesota.

Rodriguez is also a technical adviser for NAEP, and noted that fourth and eighth grades are times of transitions for students when they need to master both math and reading. For example, eighth-grade math skills are necessary for students to move on to more advanced high school classes such as calculus.

Denise Specht, president of Education Minnesota, hadn’t seen the scores yet Tuesday, but said she expected Minnesota students would have some of the highest national math scores and lower reading scores.

To bring the scores up, she said, students need high-quality preschool and more resources at community schools.

“These scores will doubtless show the need for more efforts to support children of color,” Specht said in a statement Tuesday.

The NAEP results have shown other states outperforming Minnesota in closing the gap between white students and students of color, Sellers said.

“It’s really a wake-up call for policymakers,” Sellers said.


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