Austin students’ MCA test scores decline

Published 10:59 am Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Austin students didn’t quite measure up to Austin Public School officials’ expectations.

Though district officials saw a few gains in key grade levels, overall Austin scores on the Minnesota Comprehensive Assessment tests dipped in 2011.

“We were disappointed in what we saw,” said John Alberts, educational services director. “It wasn’t where we believed we should be at nor our students. We think our students can perform.”

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About 45.6 percent of sixth-graders did not meet expectations on the MCA III math test earlier this year. In addition, about 48.6 percent of 11th-graders did not meet expectations on the MCA math test.

Students did better in reading, which follows historical trends. About 37.6 percent of third-graders exceeded expectations the reading portion of the MCA test. Only 26 percent of 10th-graders exceeded expectations on the MCA reading test.

Minnesota students showed some progress in reading on the state’s standardized tests and 11th-graders did even better on the math portion, but over half still weren’t considered proficient, the Minnesota Department of Education reported Wednesday.

The department reported that 74 percent of Minnesota students scored as proficient in reading on the Minnesota Comprehensive Assessments last spring, an increase of 1.6 percent from the previous year. The biggest gains were in grades five through seven, where minority students showed more improvement on average than their white counterparts.

The number of 11th-graders who scored as proficient in math increased 5.3 percent from the previous year to 48.6 percent. However, the state’s academic achievement gap between white students and racial minorities remained. For example, 16 percent of black 11th-graders made the grade while 55 percent of white juniors did.

It was difficult to calculate an overall math score for the state because students in grades three through eight took a test based on tough new standards for the first time. Those standards, which include the expectation that eighth-graders be proficient in algebra, were announced in 2007 and assessed for the first time this spring.

In Austin, district officials hope a few curriculum changes made before the tests were released would bolster scores next year. The district recently put in more reading intervention curriculum at the middle and high school level. In addition, district officials secured funding for four math intervention specialists to work with struggling elementary students.

Education Commissioner Brenda Cassellius said that while the improvement in reading scores was welcome, it was lower than she had hoped.

“I wanted to see double-digit numbers,” she said.

She was more excited about the gain in math proficiency among 11th graders, although she said she was still disappointed that more than half of the state’s high school juniors missed the benchmark for proficiency.

“There is a gap between what we expect and what kids know, that is the gap that needs to be minded,” she said.

She was also disappointed that minority students didn’t show more gains.

In the previous nine years, the scores on the MCA tests were used to determine if Minnesota schools faced sanctions under the federal No Child Left Behind law, which required that all students be proficient in reading and math by 2014.

However, this year Cassellius has requested a waiver from the U.S. Department of Education that would prevent more schools from being labeled as failures and relax sanctions on schools that have already run afoul of the law.

“It just really important to impress that even as we are doing our NCLB waiver that we are still holding all districts accountable for educating all kids,” she said. “We want all kids to have an opportunity to excel.”

Since the waiver is under review, MDE is withholding Adequate Yearly Progress reports.

Kent Pekel, executive director of the College Readiness Consortium at the University of Minnesota, chalked up the increase in the 11th-grade math scores to a combination of factors, including students realizing they need more math courses to get into college and the payoff from another overhaul of the math standards made a decade ago.

“I think this just shows the urgent need for Minnesotans to take a long-term approach to education improvement,” he said.

Pekel said the small increase in reading was part of a national trend, as many other states have struggled to significantly improve reading scores. He called it one of the mysteries of American education.

“Generally speaking, we really are at a point where we not making the progress we need in reading,” he said. “That’s despite big increases in literacy spending at many levels.”

School officials would normally be analyzing data and figuring out what curriculum shifts need to be made at this time, but the state government shutdown pushed data release schedules back. Alberts said district officials will analyze data over the next several weeks and come up with site plans to address the scores.