Getting the story behind the test scores

Minnesota student test scores came out this week to the usual fanfare of attention, including sounding of alarms by school critics and trumpeting of successes Minneapolis and St. Paul school districts. The Minnesota Department of Education produced a really pretty Powerpoint that shows … not much change.

Meanwhile, Minnesota Education Commissioner Brenda Cassellius has asked the feds for a waiver from No Child Left Behind requirements. That, as you probably remember, is the nifty education testing program designed to ensure a 100 percent failure rate among U.S. schools by 2014, by setting an impossible goal of 100 percent success for 100 percent of students.

Over at MinnPost, Beth Hawkins wrote a good column about making sense of the latest test results, including her cogent critique of the whole process:

I hadn’t thought to write about the MCAs this year because, frankly, after years of writing articles suggesting that the tests take up precious instructional time, don’t measure actual learning and provide little of use to educators, I have lost interest in the topic. …

So which Minnesota schools are making the NCLB grade? I’m back where I was yesterday morning when the first alarm bell rang: I don’t care, and I’m hard pressed to suggest that you should, either.

The current edition of the New York Review of Books features Diane Ravitch putting the entire controversy over public education in historical perspective. Ravitch, who originally supported No Child Left Behind and served in the administrations of both George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton, has been disillusioned by the punitive use of testing and the virulent teacher-, union- and school-bashing that passes for education reform in rightwing circles. She reminds readers:

Economists agree that teachers are the most important influence on student test scores inside the school, but the influence of schools and teachers is dwarfed by nonschool factors, most especially by family income. The reformers like to say that poverty doesn’t make a difference, but they are wrong. Poverty matters. The achievement gap between children of affluence and children of poverty starts long before the first day of school. It reflects the nutrition and medical care available to pregnant women and their children, as well as the educational level of the children’s parents, the vocabulary they hear, and the experiences to which they are exposed. … Poor children can learn and excel, but the odds are against them. [Emphasis added.]

Minnesota has a big racial achievement gap, as well as a gap between rich(er) students and poor(er) students. A narrow focus on testing, rhetorical teacher-blaming, and budget-cutting are not going to change that, but there are programs and schools that get results.

The SPPS press release about this week’s test results points out:

MCA-II reading results for Saint Paul Public Schools (SPPS) surpassed state gains and broke a four-year trend of small changes with a 4% increase for SPPS students – equating to approximately 700 more students reading at grade level. Comparatively, the state saw a 2.3% increase in the percent proficient in reading. … The critical achievement gap between Caucasian students and students of color was narrowed slightly for reading by a range of between 1-3 percentage points.

For an honor roll of most-improved schools, read the whole press release here.

The Minneapolis Public School press release also noted success:

All groups of students of color showed substantial increases in MCA-II reading scores over the past two years.

American Indian — Three percent over two years
African American — Six percent over one year and seven percent over two years
Asian — Five percent over one year and seven percent over two years
Hispanic — Five percent over two years …

Reading proficiency broken out by ELL status, special education status and free or reduced price lunch status showed substantial gains for all groups over the past two years.

Click here to read the entire MPS press release.

And finally, back to Diane Ravitch for a summary of what will reduce the achievement gaps and improve overall student performance throughout the country:

If we were to focus on the needs of children, we would make sure that every pregnant woman got good medical care and nutrition, since many children born to women without them tend to have learning disabilities. We would make sure that children in poor communities have high-quality early childhood education so that they arrive in school ready to learn. We would insist that their teachers be trained to support their social, emotional, and intellectual development and to engage local communities on behalf of their children, as Dr. James Comer of Yale University has insisted for many years. And we would have national policies whose goal is to reduce poverty by expanding economic opportunity.

(Photo credit: © Jason Stitt – Fotolia.com

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