Minnesota test scores stagnant as COVID’s effects linger on students, schools

Published 8:44 am Thursday, August 24, 2023

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By Elizabeth Shockman

Newly released test data shows only about half of Minnesota public school students are meeting or exceeding the state’s grade-level standards in reading and math — evidence, officials say, of the ongoing effects of school disruptions driven by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Statewide reading performance this year slipped 1.2 percentage points from 2022, with 49.9 percent of students meeting or beating their grade-level standard. Math performance improved slightly from the prior year, with 45.5 percent of students tested meeting the standard.

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The plunge in performance from before the pandemic is significant. Scores in math, reading and science are all down about 10 percentage points compared to 2019.

State education officials released the data publicly Thursday morning and are expected to speak to the data later in the day.

“Our students, families, school communities and educators are continuing to recover from the pandemic and need our support,” Minnesota Education Commissioner Willie Jett said in a statement accompanying the data. “These results send a renewed sense of urgency and underscore the importance of key supports that are already underway.”

Students take statewide reading and math assessments known as the Minnesota Comprehensive Assessments (or Minnesota Test of Academic Skills for students with cognitive disabilities) annually in grades three through eight, plus grade 10 for reading and grade 11 for math.

Science assessments are administered in grades five and eight, and once in high school. Of those students who took science assessments, only 39.2 percent met grade-level standards.

Julio Caesar, executive director of research, evaluation and assessment for the Bloomington Public Schools, said this year’s results were disappointing.

“We were really surprised as to how our numbers were coming in,” Caesar said. “What we were hopeful for is that we would sort of see a swing back to a little bit closer to pre-pandemic numbers for this year because we were so much more stable than the previous year.”

Attendance ‘extremely important’

Minnesota schools have long struggled with some of the worst racial disparities in the country, and this year’s test results show that those inequalities are ongoing. Students whose families struggle economically as well as students of color continue to see those disparities reflected in their test scores.

Caesar’s researchers see a significant link between lower MCA performance and student attendance rates, which were down sharply in Bloomington this year. Sixty percent of students missed nine or more days of class in Bloomington. Thirty-two percent missed 17 or more days.

“Nine (missed days) is the threshold where research tells us that student achievement can become affected,” Caesar said. “So that’s a huge impact. Attendance is extremely important for a student’s proficiency on the MCA test.”

Other districts have reported attendance issues. Data from the 2021-22 school year, the most recent available, shows attendance has plunged from 85 percent of students in class at least 90 percent of the time to just under 70 percent of students consistently attending.

Paralleling concerns about attendance, findings from Minnesota statewide student surveys show a concerning percentage of students struggling with their mental health. Nearly a third of Minnesota students responding to the 2022 survey acknowledged they were struggling with long-term mental health problems, higher than at any other time in the history of the survey, which began in 1989.

Caution around conclusions

States around the country have reported COVID-driven drops similar to what’s been seen in Minnesota. Results from the National Assessment of Educational Progress — often called the nation’s report card — show plunging achievement on math and reading.

However, Minnesota students scored higher than students in other states in math and slightly higher in reading in the most recent NAEP exams. The state also tracks graduation rates, which are slowly moving back toward pre-pandemic highs.

MCA scores should be viewed carefully, Caesar cautioned, noting that they’re meant to be tools to understand how successfully schools are teaching. The MCA tests are very low-stakes for students, he added, which often leads to lower scores.

“There’s really no repercussions or consequences for students doing poorly on them (MCAs) or doing well on them,” he said. “So you tend to have very low motivation from students trying to do well on those exams.”

For parents worried about individual student results on exams, Caesar said it’s important to compare MCA data with other assessments and evaluations from teachers.