Nathan: Test results encourage rethinking

Americans have complicated, conflicted feelings about how much to rely on statewide standardized tests, such as those whose scores were recently released. I think this year’s results suggest three changes. Minnesota should:
• Make much more use of highly successful schools.
• Share results sooner with teachers.
• Use a broader array of assessments.
Results for schools and districts are at http://rc.education.state.mn.us.
Minnesota Commissioner of Education Brenda Cassellius explained in a phone call: “We are seeing steady improvement in student achievement. That’s encouraging.”
Over the last several years, there has been an increase in the percentage of Minnesota youngsters who are proficient in reading and math, according to these tests. Depending on the grade, statewide, the percentage of students grades three through eight scoring “proficient” in the state’s math tests has grown since 2011 by 2 percent (third grade) to 8 percent (fifth grade).
In reading, a more difficult test was introduced in 2013. About 1 percent more students passed this test in 2014, compared to 2013.
The gains are a reflection of hard work by many educators, students and families.
However, despite millions of dollars and much effort, the achievement gap, at least in mathematics, is not being closed between students of white and American Indian, and white and African American students. A new, tougher math test was introduced in 2011. Since then, the number of white students proficient in math has increased 6 percent (from 65 to 71 percent). Black students’ proficiency has increased 5 percent (from 30 to 35 percent). American Indian student proficiency has increased 6 percent (from 32 to 38 percent). The percent of Hispanic students who are proficient increased 7 percent (from 33 to 40 percent).
So huge gaps remain, and with African American and American Indian students, they are not being closed.
Meanwhile, Minnesota has district and charter public schools that are showing how to close these gaps.
Friendship Academy is a charter public school in Minneapolis with 95 percent African American students and 91 percent of students receiving free and reduced-price lunch. The percentage of Friendship Academy students scoring proficient in math has increased steadily since 2011, from 44.1 percent in 2011 to 79.6 percent in 2014.
Valley View Elementary in Columbia Heights is 36 percent Hispanic, 33 percent black, 6 percent Asian/Pacific Islander, 3 percent American Indian and 22 percent white. Eighty-six percent of Valley View’s students receive free and reduced-price lunch. Valley View has increased the percentage of its students proficient in math from 55 percent in 2011 to 71 percent in 2014.
At Global Academy, a charter in Columbia Heights, 93 percent of students come from low-income homes and 69 percent of students are African American. The school achieved a mark of 66 percent proficient in math.
Minnesota should make far more use of these and other outstanding district and charter elementary schools to help other schools. The Center for School Change has arranged workshops led by Friendship Academy. They have many transferrable ideas. It is possible for many students to do far better on these tests, regardless of race or family income.
We also need to find ways to make these results more useful to teachers. Results are released several months after the school year ends. Denise Specht, president of the state’s teachers union, Education Minnesota, wrote in a press release: “MCA data are almost worthless for teachers and parents who want to improve instruction for individual students. The results come too late for teachers to help the students they had last spring and the results are too unsophisticated to guide teachers who have those students this fall.”
Important things happen in schools that are not measured by traditional tests. Minnesota should be using a broader array of measures to show what’s happening in schools. I’ll write about this in a future column.
In the meantime, congratulations on progress. Let’s learn from success.

Joe Nathan, formerly a Minnesota public school teacher, administrator and PTA president, directs the Center for School Change. Reactions are welcome at joe@centerforschoolchange.org.

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