It might have been a lack of coffee, or it might be the fatalism that can result from the daily grind in an urban school district, but Superintendent Bernadeia Johnson had to repeat herself several times before she got a rise out of the audience yesterday at the year’s first Minneapolis Public Schools principals’ meeting.
After years of posting lackluster scores on standardized state tests, MPS students and their teachers last year made meaningful gains in math and reading on the Minnesota Comprehensive Assessments [PDF]. More than that, they made bigger gains than students statewide, particularly among impoverished minorities.
“I had to stop and say, ‘Did you hear what I’m saying?’ ” Johnson laughed as she retold the story a couple of hours later. “After I said it four times, there was applause.”
On virtually every measure, MPS kids’ growth outpaced students statewide. In some schools, students made double-digit gains.
Almost exactly a year ago, Johnson broke down in tears at a school board meeting after responding to questions about a second consecutive year of 1 percent gains. A wee gain is better than no gain, she said then, but at that rate it would take half a century to bring every student up to par. The lack of real progress toward closing the achievement gap imperiled generations of kids.
Momentum could eventally close gap
With just 56 percent of students reading at grade level, overall academic proficiency is still way too low, Johnson said yesterday. But if the pace of change is sustainable, the gap could actually close.
“The momentum we can get from this, the excitement — to get these results in an urban district,” she said. “Now we have something to build on.”
In grades 3-8, reading scores increased 4 percent over last year. Among white students, the gain was still just 1 percent. But the number of African-American students who met or exceeded state reading standards rose 6 percent and Latinos 5 percent. Asian students gained 5 percent and American Indians 3 percent over two years.
Also over two years, gains by English-language learners, special-ed students and kids who qualify for free and reduced-price lunch were 4, 5 and 5 percent, respectively.
In response to a new, tougher test, math scores went down — but by less than they did in Minnesota overall. In the 11th grade, where students took the old test, MPS kids made a 7 percent gain. And in eighth-grade reading, the district’s proficiency level rose by 8 percent, versus 1 percent statewide.
Most educators and policymakers alike agree that standardized tests administered largely to comply with the federal No Child Left Behind act, like the MCAs, are a poor use of time and money. The most interesting data they yield is often the identification of outliers — high-poverty schools that post high scores or outsized gains.
Johnson has already scoured MPS’ data in search of internal “outliers,” programs and instructors that posted double-digit gains.
Immersion-school students did well
Students at two Spanish-immersion schools did particularly well: Windom gained nearly 17 percent in reading, for example, while students at Emerson gained more than 12 percent. Education scholars believe language-immersion schools have a couple of advantages when it comes to gap-closing. Because they are working to keep up with classroom discussions, students tend to stay engaged. And because the second language is new to everyone, socioeconomic differences matter less.
Northrup pupils gained 11 percent and Washburn, which underwent a “fresh start” wholesale reorganization four years ago, 9.6 percent.
At the principals’ meeting, Johnson even name-checked a few highly effective instructors. “These teachers clearly have to serve as examples with their practice, so we can figure out what they’re doing and how to replicate it,” she said. “We’re understanding what quality teaching looks like.”
A deliberate strategy for reading gains
Johnson credits the elementary-level reading gains to a deliberate strategy: assigning each school a literacy coach and using formative assessments — mini-tests delivered on the fly — to identify gaps in individual kids’ skills. This approach is also used in many of the high-poverty, high-proficiency schools that show up on Twin Cities “beat-the-odds” lists.
This is the second year Johnson has insisted that MPS teachers have every kindergartener reading at a basic level by winter break. Last year, this goal was met with no small amount of grumbling on the part of teachers, many of whom found it unrealistic.
She’s hoping the gains announced yesterday help convince district staff that aiming higher is part of the equation for success. “We cannot lose the sense of urgency,” Johnson said. “We cannot lose the sense of importance.
“Today in Minneapolis Public Schools we are going to celebrate and acknowledge what we’ve done,” the superintendent concluded. “And then we’re going to get back to work.”