Minnesota students make gains on MCA-II testsby Tim Nelson, Minnesota Public Radio
St. Paul, Minn. — The state's students performed well this year on the Minnesota Comprehensive Assessment test, with virtually every grade tested this spring and virtually every cross-section of the student population showing at least small improvements in the reading and math tests over last year.
"In the math area, we have seen some really nice results in the elementary and middle school areas," State education commissioner Alice Seagren said. "We see nice substantial gains in most of the grades."
Sixth graders, for example, posted a 5.2 percent improvement, likely more than just a statistical anomaly.
But some gains weren't as nice as educators had been hoping for.
Last year, a state requirement that high school students pass a math test to earn a diploma helped drive the number of students rated proficient in math up by 7 percent. That's a blistering pace, by testing standards.
The problem was, barely two in five passed at all, prompting state lawmakers to lift the requirement for the class of 2010.
This year, in turn, saw the smallest gain among 11th graders in math since the current tests were implemented -- as juniors throttled back to a 1.7 percent improvement for 2010, which is basically flat, according to education experts.
Still, barely two out of five high school students are making the math grade. High school seniors must take the test at least three times, even if they don't pass it, and those who fail are subject to remedial math classes.
RAISING THE STAKES
This year's MCA results keep the focus on one of the central tenets of recent education policy -- that raising the stakes for students and schools will push their achievement higher.
Seagren hopes those stakes stay in place. After six years, she may soon be handing over her agency to a new commissioner and Legislature, depending on this fall's elections.
"I hope they don't weaken what they have done already. I hope we don't go any farther," she said. "I do think that students need to understand that they need to work really hard to achieve not only a proficiency, but a college and career ready level."
But not everyone's convinced that raising the stakes for kids makes for better achievement.
"On any test, though, when you put the stakes in place, you get a one or at most two time bump," said Kent Pekel, director of the College Readiness Consortium at the University of Minnesota. "And then you go back to reality, which is that the kids don't really do better unless they learn more math."
There's also a downside, said Pekel, one of the people tasked with overhauling the state's graduation requirements last year.
"It was the right thing to do to actually lift that requirement, because you would have been denying diplomas to 80 percent of the black kids in that cohort in the state," he said "I mean, it would have been Armageddon. The bar was just delusionally high on that test."
ACHIEVEMENT GAP REMAINS
That highlights another aspect of this year's results: even as scores edge up, a stubborn achievement gap remains. Whites led blacks in the 10th grade reading test by nearly 40 percent this year.
While about half of white students would have passed the final high school math test, less than one in seven black students cleared the bar on the first try -- and 87 percent did not.
That's down from the 96 percent failure rate in 2006, but still a long way from the federal No Child Left Behind Act requirement that all kids meet equal standards by 2014.
Like Minnesota's educational benchmarks, that goal is likely to be revisited when -- and if -- No Child Left Behind is reauthorized in Congress.
Even the tests themselves are headed for change in Minnesota.
Next year, the state will start giving MCA-III tests, incorporating a set of standards set in 2007. Current high school students will continue to take the MCA-II tests, but the change may interrupt the year-to-year comparisons that Minnesota has done since 2006.
"The transition is going to be noticeable across the grades, although it's been happening already" said Dirk Mattson, the state Department of Education's assessment and research director. "The content of Algebra 1 is a requirement in the 8th grade now, so that's what the state tests will reflect. But teachers have already been making that transition since the standards came out."
The district wide and school wide results of the MCAs are available on the Department of Education website. Individual student results will be mailed later this summer.
- Morning Edition, 07/01/2010, 7:45 a.m.