Minnesota has work to do if it is going to meet state education leaders’ goal of cutting the achievement gap in half by 2017.

State officials’ assertion that school accountability measures released this summer show roughly two-thirds of schools are on track to meet that goal overlooks some of the key challenges Minnesota schools face.

Progress is certainly being made, but there is not enough of it in the Twin Cities metro area, where the majority of Minnesota’s poor and minority children live.

To identify schools on track to close their achievement gaps, the Minnesota Department of Education graded more than 1,500 schools by how well they were addressing academic disparities between students who are poor, minorities or learning English and their white and more affluent classmates.

A Pioneer Press analysis of that data found 62 percent of schools are meeting state benchmarks for closing achievement gaps in math and 65 percent are on track in reading.

However, only one-third of those schools are in the Twin Cities metro.

Furthermore, the schools that state leaders say are on track to close achievement gaps enroll less than 40 percent of Minnesota’s students of color, the data shows.

About 200 Minnesota schools have the biggest gaps with four or more student groups failing to meet state benchmarks. Roughly 65 percent of those schools are in the Twin Cities metro and more than 30 percent of the schools are in the St. Paul or Minneapolis districts.

MCA Math and Reading Scores

In Minnesota’s two large urban districts, the majority of pupils are students of color, most come from low-income families and roughly a quarter are learning to speak English.

Stephanie Graff, chief accountability officer for the state, said it should be no surprise that the schools with the highest concentrations of students from low-income families or who are learning English would need more time to close their achievement gaps. Graff added that the state’s accountability system recognizes successes in a wide variety of schools statewide.

“I think we would be lying to say it is not more challenging for schools with far more barriers to student learning to grow at a rate they need to close gaps,” Graff said. “I think people know where our challenges lie. … I think it’s clear. It also doesn’t discredit those who are making progress.”

Kent Pekel, president of the Minneapolis-based Search Institute, which focuses on ways to improve student education and development, said state education leaders should be more precise when describing the gains being made and the challenges that remain.

“The vast majority of kids on the wrong side of the achievement gap are not in the schools that are making progress,” Pekel said.

NOTED SUCCESSES

Results from the latest round of Minnesota Comprehensive Assessments, MCAs, may be flat, and many schools may still be struggling to close academic disparities, but that doesn’t mean there are not success stories to be found.

Earlier this month, the state designated 119 “reward” schools — high-poverty schools that are achieving academic success. About 250 other schools received “celebration eligible” status that recognizes schools on the right track.

Those designations come from new Multiple Measurement Ratings, or MMRs, given to schools since 2012. The ratings are compiled using MCA results to gauge students’ academic growth and how well schools are closing achievement gaps in addition to proficiency in math, reading and science.

Nacorey Rolland, left, and Cedric Xiong practice their math skills together in the first grade classroom of Stephanie Pignato, at Phalen Lake Hmong Studies

Nacorey Rolland, left, and Cedric Xiong practice their math skills together in the first grade classroom of Stephanie Pignato, at Phalen Lake Hmong Studies Magnet School in St. Paul, on Thursday, September 24, 2015. Students work together in” Turn N’ Talk” classroom exercises, practicing content vocabulary and developing critical skills with their peers. (Pioneer Press: Scott Takushi)

Graduation rates are included for high schools.

In the latest round, Carver Elementary School in the North St. Paul-Maplewood-Oakdale district received the best possible MMR score. Carver has also been named a reward school four times.

More than half of Carver’s pupils are students of color, nearly 60 percent come from low-income homes and 20 percent are learning English.

Nearly all Carver student groups outscore both the district and state averages on the MCAs. In turn, Carver gets high marks from the state for its success narrowing academic disparities between student groups.

Isis Buchanan, Carver’s principal, says her school’s success is rooted in the staff’s willingness to try new things and their tireless work to make sure students feel comfortable when they come to school.

“We listen to each other,” Buchanan said. “If something is not working, we have to be honest with ourselves and do something different. We are constantly looking at data and the progress of our students and adjusting what we do.”

Success is a little harder to see at schools such as Phalen Lake Hmong Studies Magnet in St. Paul. The elementary is one of four St. Paul schools to receive a “celebration eligible” ranking from the state.

Nearly all of Phalen’s students are minorities and come from low-income families. Most are also learning English.

Phalen Lake’s proficiency scores are far from terrific, but the school outscores district and state averages for low-income and English learners on several academic measures. That improvement is reflected in the school’s MMR score for student growth.

Catherine Rich, the school’s principal, says teams of teachers from each grade level meet weekly to find ways to improve their instruction. They focus on connecting lessons to students’ existing language skills and their families’ cultures.

Phalen Lake’s staff and students work deliberately on steady, incremental improvement. “This is all about growth,” Rich said. “This is all about moving forward.”

DEBATE FRAMED

The variety of challenges urban, suburban and rural schools face helps frame the ongoing debate about the information state leaders use to hold schools accountable.

Most educators agree that using multiple measurements of school performance is better than focusing only on student proficiency. Many agree with Rich and Buchanan that looking closely at the academic growth of students can say a lot about a school’s success.

And state education leaders insist the added data is an important tool for closing the state’s achievement gap. There are six state “centers of excellence” to help school leaders interpret that information and update teacher training.

“As a state, we said we need to move beyond just proficiency and look at how students progress year to year,” Graff said. “When we look beyond proficiency, we build a more complex system.”

Despite the new information Minnesota has about student achievement, some school leaders and education advocates question whether the MMR is the best way to judge Minnesota schools.

Some see flaws in what’s measured. For instance, should there be more of a focus on how long it takes a student to reach proficiency, rather than strict growth?

Others say measuring urban schools, where students face a lot of challenges, and suburban and rural schools, where there are fewer hurdles, in the same way doesn’t provide accurate information about how well any of the schools are doing. Struggling schools can make a lot of progress and hardly get noticed and successful schools can have stagnant scores and be celebrated.

“The measure has to inform action,” said Pekel, of the Search Institute, who noted he advised state leaders when they created the MMR and now has growing concerns about how it is being used. “Is the system set up so a reasonable person can understand it? Are we actually using it to identify the positive deviance, those high performers?”

Graff defends both the design and complexity of the MMR system. She says educators have more information about their students than ever and are sharing it with parents, who have a better understanding of how their schools are performing.

“I think we are always open to improving the system,” said Graff, who added the U.S. Department of Education requires school accountability systems to measure specific things in certain ways. “We were not given total freedom to how we want to measure schools in Minnesota. We have made a giant leap forward.”

Christopher Magan can be reached at 651-228-5557. Follow him at twitter.com/chris_magan.

AT A GLANCE

WHAT IS THE ACHIEVEMENT GAP?

In Minnesota and other states, the academic performance of students who come from low-income families, are racial minorities, receive special education services or are learning English trails their white and more affluent classmates.

WHAT’S BEING DONE?

Minnesota is working to close its achievement gap in several ways. They include expanding early-childhood education, focusing on elementary literacy skills, improved teacher training and better outreach to students’ families.

ARE WE IMPROVING?

Minnesota has shown some success closing achievement gaps on national tests and with high school graduation rates. Results closing gaps on the Minnesota Comprehensive Assessments, or MCAs, have been mixed, with some groups making strides and others losing ground.