Austin students behind the state on math, reading assessments

Published 10:53 am Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Tests show declining scores

Austin Public Schools was no exception to the overall dip in state testing scores this year, due to new tests and online testing methods. Yet the district overall is below state Minnesota Comprehensive Assessment average scores once more.

About 62.6 percent of Minnesota third- through eighth-graders met MCA math benchmarks on this year’s tests, compared to 54.6 percent of Austin students. About 52.4 percent of Minnesota juniors made MCA math benchmarks, while only 40.1 percent of Austin juniors did the same. In reading, 57.8 percent of Minnesota students in grades three through eight and 10 passed the MCA, while 47.3 percent of Austin students passed.

State education officials introduced a new reading test this year, as well as allowed students to take math assessments online. The Minnesota Department of Education also removed the “three strikes” rule this year, which allowed high school juniors to fail the MCA math exam to take it up to three times, with no penalties should they repeatedly fail, before graduating.

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“We knew that scores were going to look a little different than in the past,” said John Alberts, educational services director. Alberts said district officials were treating this year’s MCAs differently as state officials made more test changes than usual. Because changing an exam or a testing format usually results in lower test scores, education officials across the state expected bad news.

Education Commissioner Brenda Cassellius described the new reading standards as “more challenging,” and the department said the scores reflect that.

“Anytime a new test based on new standards is given, a drop in scores is to be expected,” Cassellius said. But she said toughening academic expectations was the best way Minnesota can help prepare its students for the challenges of a changing economy.

Of the seven grade levels to take the reading test, the percentage of students that met or exceeded expectations fell in a range between 54 percent (fourth-, seventh- and eighth-graders) to 64 percent (fifth-graders). Cassellius said the key measure would be whether the percentages improve in subsequent years.

Minnesota adopted national Common Core State Standards for reading and writing in 2010, but administered tests with those standards for the first time in 2013. The standards are designed to give students more complex reading material as they advance through the grades, and to require demonstration of comprehension through class discussion and writing projects.

On the math tests, the performance of third- through eighth-graders dipped slightly from 2012 to 2013. In 2013, the state’s flexibility waiver from federal No Child Left Behind provisions only allowed them to take it once.

The math tests all improved from 2011, the first year they were given. In addition, the number of 11th grade students who met or exceeded expectations on the math test jumped 9 percentage points — 52 percent in 2013 from 43 percent in 2012.

Another bright spot was improvements in science tests, which were first administered in 2012. Fifth-graders, eighth-graders and high school students all showed 1 percent to 2 percent gains.

Though Austin has made similar gains, the district has been below state MCA averages for several years.

“That’s something that we need to look at to figure out how we can bump ourselves over that,” Alberts said.

Alberts said this year’s results would be difficult to compare to previous years due to the test changes, but said the district’s increased emphasis on ACT testing would allow officials to better measure a student’s growth.

“Ultimately, ACT isn’t changing,” he said. “We’ll be able to use that to see how students are doing.”

The district did show strong scores in elementary math, as more than half of third- and fourth-graders in Austin passed the MCA math portion, with almost 70 percent of third-graders meeting or exceeding MCA benchmarks.

—The Associated Press contributed to this report.