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Minnesota students' scores on statewide math and reading exams plummeted last year amid the disruptions of the pandemic — but likely paint only a limited picture of the impact of COVID-19 on academic achievement.

That's because a staggering number of students — more than 20% of all who were eligible — did not take standardized tests administered last spring, including the Minnesota Comprehensive Assessments, or MCAs. Most sat out the exams because of pandemic-related complications, including that thousands of students were in distance learning and unable or unwilling to spend several days taking tests at school. Two years ago, when the tests were last administered, nearly 3% of students opted out of the math and reading exams.

Still, state education leaders said the sharp declines in the number of students meeting state standards show that Minnesota must work quickly to address students' wide-ranging academic, social and emotional needs as they return to school this fall. Just 53% of students met state standards in reading, down 7 percentage points from two years ago. In math, only 44% were considered proficient, down 11 percentage points from the last test.

"The statewide assessment results confirm what we already knew — that the COVID-19 pandemic has disrupted our students' learning and they need help to recover," said Minnesota Education Commissioner Heather Mueller.

State officials on Friday announced the debut of a new statewide initiative meant to "support learning recovery." The Collaborative Minnesota Partnerships to Advance Student Success, or COMPASS, will coordinate additional training for teachers and school administrators working with students trying to make up ground in reading, math or social and emotional skills.

The largest statewide exam, the MCAs, are administered to students in grades three through eight in both reading and math, while high school sophomores take the reading exam and juniors are tested in math. A science exam is administered to fifth- through eighth-graders, and also given once in high school.

The decline in test scores stretched across all racial groups and income levels. But test opt-out rates varied considerably from district to district and geographically across the state.

In a few districts and charter schools, mostly in the metro area, almost no students took the test. That includes Brooklyn Center, where 97% of students opted out, and Fridley, where 70% declined to test. On the other end of the spectrum, almost all students took the test in more than 100 mostly rural districts.

There were also wide disparities in who took the tests. Just over half of all students who didn't take the tests, or didn't complete them because of pandemic-related complications, were students of color. That's a disproportionate share in a state where students of color make up about 36% of overall school enrollment.

Districts and charters with high poverty rates, meanwhile, had about double the rate of students opting out of the tests compared with low-poverty schools.

All of that adds up to a set of data that districts are giving a "cautionary look," said Steve Troen, director of teaching and learning for the Rosemount-Apple Valley-Eagan school district. Troen said schools always look to other metrics, like graduation and absentee rates, and assessments collected throughout the school year, to get a full picture of how students are faring. This year, because the MCAs were given under such variable circumstances, that's even more important.

And because it's still unclear how the COVID-19 pandemic will shape this academic year, Troen said it will take some time before districts can rely on test-score data in the same way.

"I think it's going to be a couple years before we come back to that apples-to-apples [comparison]," he said.

In the state's largest district, Anoka-Hennepin, Superintendent David Law said he was expecting to see a considerable drop in scores everywhere, from the state's wealthiest districts to those with large populations of students in poverty.

In Anoka-Hennepin, just under half of students met state standards in math, a drop of 15 percentage points from two years ago. About 55% of the districts' test takers were proficient in reading, a drop of 10 percentage points.

"The reality is, no one is surprised that when you're not going to school, you're not looking like someone who has been in school," he said.

Law said the scores show students will come back this year needing support, but he said he's optimistic because longer-term data maintained by the district shows students can and have made big gains academically over a period of several years. He said he expects younger students, in particular, have enough time to catch up to where they would have been had the pandemic never happened.

In Minneapolis, where just less than half took the tests, 35% of students met math standards, a drop of 7 percentage points. In reading, 46% were proficient, about the same as two years ago.

Just over half of St. Paul Public Schools students were tested. In math, 21% of students met state standards, down 11 percentage points from the last test. About one-third of the district's tested students were proficient in reading, a drop of 6 percentage points.

The lower test scores across Minnesota reflect the results of standardized tests administered in other parts of the country during the pandemic. Educators are sorting out the many ways in which the economic and social stresses of the pandemic, shifts between learning models, and other factors have affected students and what it will take to help them succeed this year.

Michael Rodriguez, an associate dean and professor of educational psychology at the University of Minnesota who studies testing and evaluation in schools, said this year's MCA scores should be seen as only one piece of a far more complicated picture. He said the test results are the product of the conditions under which they were administered, which varied widely.

Rodriguez said individual schools are best equipped to put the test score data in context, considering their own specific challenges and successes of the past year, and use it as one piece of information that may tell them about how they're doing as a school system. Beyond that, though, it gets more complicated.

"I absolutely would not want to use these scores to make decisions for individual students," he said.

Erin Golden • 612-673-4790

MaryJo Webster • 612-673-1789