State data: Little change in student test scores, achievement gap persists

/ 1 August 2012 / eunice

Tim Post, Minnesota Public Radio, August 1, 2012 – Reading and test scores among Minnesota students remain relatively flat over previous years, according to data released today by the state Department of Education.

The scores also show a wide achievement gap persists between white students and students of color.

But a change in how the state looks at testing data is coming soon, and education officials hope that helps identify solutions to fix the disparity.

This year’s overall reading and math scores for Minnesota students increased slightly over last year. However small, it marks positive change, said Brenda Cassellius, state education commissioner.

“I feel like we are bending the curve,” Cassellius said.

Three-quarters of all students are now proficient in reading, about a point higher than the previous year.

Increases in math proficiency were about 5 percent. However, education officials say that’s partly because students were recovering from a big drop the previous year after new standards and testing methods went into place.

Just over 61 percent of Minnesota students are now considered proficient in math.

Cassellius said an increase of two points in reading scores in the lower grades is proof that the state’s effort to push third graders to read at grade level is working. She said that increase is starting to narrow, in tiny increments, the achievement gap between white students and students of color.

But a huge gap remains. Here’s an example: this year 32 percent of black students were proficient in math, an increase over last year, but 36 points below white students.

Reading and Math proficiency of Minnesota students – 2012 assessment results

• American Indian: Math 38.5%, reading 55.9%

• Asian: Math 59.4%, reading67.3%

• Black: Math 32.6%, reading 52.7%

• Hispanic: Math 38.2%, reading 53.9%

• White: Math 68.4%, Reading 81.9%

Tiny gains in scores just aren’t enough to erase the gap, Cassellius said.

That’s what Michelle Walker, the chief of staff in the St. Paul school district says as well.

“We’re not seeing the gap increase, but at the same time we’re not seeing it close as fast as we’d like to see,” Walker said.

It’s a sentiment echoed by Eric VendenBerk, interim director of research at Minneapolis Public Schools.

“We have seen some incremental improvement, but right now we feel like, we’re not closing that gap quickly enough.”

As school officials statewide examine the latest data to see how their students are performing, they already are looking ahead to a new system of monitoring student performance that starts soon.

The current system, left over from the federal program No Child Left Behind, essentially grades schools on how many students are proficient in reading and math.

The new system, made possible by a waiver from the federal program, still tracks proficiency, but also holds schools accountable for academic growth among students.

That’s a better way to track the performance of students and schools, VandenBerk said.

“Proficiency just tells you a cut point, where students fall above or below a cut point, whereas growth is more detailed information about how well you did within a given year among a given group of students.”

Misty Sato, professor of teacher development at the University of Minnesota, said this new way of monitoring student progress may shift the state’s approach to the achievement gap.

“This is not just raising students of color up to a level of white students or higher socioeconomic status students,” Sato said. “This is moving all kids from moving where they are now to high levels of performance.”

Sato said monitoring student progress will also give teachers more relevant feedback on what works in the classroom, especially for students of color.

Ultimately the state will use the new way of monitoring test scores to figure out which schools are making progress in closing the achievement gap,” Cassellius said.

“Find where success is happening across the state and be able to share those best practices with other schools so that we can know what’s working and spread it,” Cassellius said.

The first round of data under the state’s new accountability system for students and schools, will be released at the end of this month.