Minnesota students are beginning a new school year with news of an old, stubbornly entrenched school problem.
Statewide test scores released last week show that Minnesota still has unacceptably large academic achievement disparities between white students and students of color. It’s an ongoing dilemma that calls for use of proven strategies and innovative thinking. And it’s an issue that candidates for governor and city and school board seats must address as they campaign this fall.
The state education department (MDE) reported that Minnesota Comprehensive Assessments (MCA) math and reading scores remained relatively flat and that little change had occurred with the persistent disparities for poor students and students of color. Despite years of effort and dozens of initiatives to improve test results, reading scores remained in a holding pattern. Only 60 percent of students met reading standards for proficiency last school year, and math scores declined from 59 percent in 2016-17 to 57 percent last year.
Statewide performance differences narrowed slightly from the previous year but remained troubling, with a 35-percentage-point gap between white and black students in reading and a 38-percentage-point difference in math. The gaps were even larger in Minneapolis and St. Paul.
Test results were released just after MDE announced a new way to evaluate schools. Called the North Star accountability system, this assessment tool replaces measures that mostly relied on test scores under the No Child Left Behind federal education law.
North Star was developed to comply with the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), the new federal education legislation. It evaluates schools based on high school graduation rates, attendance, progress made by students learning English, test scores and test score improvement. The assessment found that 485 schools (about 25 percent of Minnesota schools) had low scores on at least one of those criteria.
Of that total, 47 were designated for “comprehensive support” because they need help across multiple measures. Schools falling into that category are scattered across the state, although about half (24) are in Minneapolis and St. Paul. Another 147 high schools will get support because at least one student group had a graduation rate below 67 percent.
But no matter what evaluation method is used, some of the same programs end up on the “most challenged” list year after year. Education Commissioner Brenda Cassellius said North Star provides a more comprehensive picture of student performance than test scores alone. It also shows how each student is doing in various student groups, including but not limited to racial groups. In addition to identifying struggling schools and students, MDE recognized 526 schools as top performers for either specific groups of students or for entire schools.
Cassellius says that new state rules give MDE more authority to intervene in struggling schools. She added that the flat scores are indicative of the state’s stronger academic standards, and that MDE must work with teachers to better align subject matter with standards-based tests.
The Editorial Board has argued that state and school district officials should act more quickly to replicate successful academic models. They should also step in sooner to reconstitute or close failing programs.
In the remaining weeks of the 2018 campaign, Minnesotans should press candidates for their solutions to the education challenges that have vexed this state for too long.