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Minnesota students get high marks, but there’s trouble ahead

Overall, Minnesota posted higher scores than all but two other states.
CORBIS/Walter Bibikow
Overall, Minnesota posted higher scores than all but two other states.

On Tuesday, federal officials released the results of the 2011 National Assessment of Educational Progress, standardized tests administered by the U.S. Department of Education. Sometimes referred to as “the nation’s report card,” the NAEPs generate big headlines because they are the only standardized tests that allow for an apples-to-apples comparison of performance by students throughout the country.

Perhaps you saw some of those headlines earlier this week and wondered how Minnesota could both still be well above the national average and lagging? The explanation is instructional — both in terms of what’s going on in schools and in terms of how poorly news media often report on achievement data.

Every year for the last two decades, the NAEPs have assessed a national cross-section of students and broken down the results by state, race, income level and other categories. This year, fourth and eighth graders were tested in reading, math, writing and science. Next year, 12th graders will take the tests.

Overall, Minnesota did post higher scores than all but two other states. The average “scale scores” posted by our students is 249, while students in Massachusetts and New Hampshire posted averages of 253 and 252, respectively. Two other states had outcomes similar enough to ours to essentially tie.

Broken down, though, top billing starts to lose its luster. Only 12 percent of Minnesota kids’ scores qualified as “advanced” and 41 percent were “proficient.” Another 35 percent were rated “basic” and the remaining 12 percent below basic.

At the next level, things get even less shiny. NAEP data ranks states, but also clearly points out when the difference between one score and another is not big enough to be statistically significant. Not unlike the error rate accompanying polling data, this disclaimer means that if the same groups of kids were to take the same tests on another day, the results might reverse themselves.

Few bright spots
Interestingly, on lots of the NAEP measures, upwards of 30 states post scores that are not statistically distinct from the rest. So if you punch interactive charts and maps that show different outcomes, you typically see a few brightly colored states and a vast sea of statistically indistinct, lusterless beige.

Translation: In many cases, when we’re in the top few, really, we’re only performing better, in any meaningful way, than a handful of states. And on many indicators we’re incrementally behind states traditionally thought of as academic backwaters, like Mississippi, Louisiana and Texas.

The bullet on that middle-American mass, according to the New York Times’ summary“Elementary and middle school students have improved greatly in math, but their reading skills have stagnated over the last two decades, federal officials said on Tuesday.”

And Minnesota, it’s fair to say, is ahead of most states in math overall. Among black and white fourth-graders, we scored higher than all states except New Hampshire and Massachusetts. And we were one of three states that trailed New Hampshire and Massachusetts among black and white eighth-graders.

Only one state — Texas — posted statistically significant better scores in math among eighth-grade African Americans. Texas, Massachusetts and New Hampshire did better with fourth-grade African Americans, while eight states did worse, statistically.

Minnesota’s outlier appearances aren’t all brag-worthy. In both reading and math in both grades surveyed, for instance, the only place with a larger gap between scores posted by African-American pupils and white ones is Washington, D.C.

Just 10 states had gaps that were statistically meaningful and smaller than Minnesota’s 30 points in fourth grade reading; six had real, smaller gaps in eighth grade reading. D.C. was the only place with a larger gap in eighth grade math.

To put that gap into perspective: African-American students in fourth and eighth grades are more than three grade levels behind white students in math, according to the education advocacy group MinnCAN. African-American students in fourth and eighth grades are more than two grade levels behind whites in reading and low-income students in both grades are more than two levels behind their wealthier peers.

And if you wade into that vast sea of beige, there are some sobering items: In crude numbers, African-American fourth-graders in Alabama did better than in Minnesota.

Worries ahead
So what’s to be made of this? As founding director of the University of Minnesota’s College Readiness Consortium, Kent Pekel is as steeped in NAEP’s fine points as anyone hereabouts, and his main takeaway is that instead of worrying about where we are right now, we should be troubled by where we’ll be soon.

The Minnesota students doing the least well are students of color, he explained, and they are doing less well — making slower gain than and backsliding faster than — their peers in other states.

“In reading, we are improving less rapidly than other states,” he said. “That’s also true of math, but we’re further ahead right now.

“One wonders if Minnesota students’ high but relatively flat performance in math portends problems to come,” he added.

Not only are other states making faster progress, the student populations that are growing rapidly are students of color. If our not just statistically significant but eye-popping racial and socioeconomic gaps persist, we’ll lag further and further.

The danger here, of course, is that an array of statistics such as these can be used to rationalize just about any ideological approach or strategy you can imagine.

Last year, with education reform atop the Legislature’s agenda, NAEP scores were used by state Republicans who wanted Minnesota to adopt a package of reforms former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush credited for outsize gains on the tests made by some groups in his state.

Parsed more objectively, the statistics showed that narrow groups in single grades had made particular gains — not that political footballs such as vouchers and privatization had a direct impact.

Better, in Pekel’s opinion, to mine the data not for numbers that support a particular approach but to see what has been possible elsewhere.

“Whatever we decide to do, we have to commit to a bipartisan state policy and stick to it for a long time,” he said.

“If you can’t get to a critical mass that has looked at the policy in enough detail and a tough level, we’re going to be right back here in two or three years.”

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Comments (16)

  1. Submitted by Michael Corcoran on 11/04/2011 - 10:27 am.

    Your article ignores the obvious truth of why the gap between white and black students is so high in Minnesota compared to the rest of the USA. The gap is not because African American students fare so poorly (they don’t compared to other states) its because the white students have been doing so much better relative to white students in the rest of the country. Minnpost needs to use a little Logic 101 and provide the complete story

  2. Submitted by Thomas Swift on 11/04/2011 - 11:02 am.

    This whole thing needs to be put in global perspective.

    Viewed from places like China, Japan and Singapore, Minnnesota is average among second string players.

    Last years Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) report, which compares 15 year olds in 70 countries world wide, ranked the US 14th out of 34 OECD countries for reading, 17th for science & 25th for mathematics.

    Canadian 15 year olds are 1 full grade level ahead of ours, and we’re near the bottom of the barrel on graduation rates.

    Makes one look kind of silly looking down one’s nose at a neighboring state, doesn’t it?

  3. Submitted by Beth Hawkins on 11/04/2011 - 11:47 am.

    Actually, Minnesota’s white kids are not all doing so much better than kids in the rest of the country. On many indicators our white students are right there in the beige blob with Alabama, Louisiana, Mississippi, Texas and other states traditionally thought of as low achieving. I believe that what has kept us near the front of the pack in terms of overall averages is our students’ strong math scores, which is true of both white and African American kids.

  4. Submitted by Dennis Schapiro on 11/04/2011 - 11:50 am.


    To the extent that writers,like Ms. Hawkins, buy into the logic of the tests, they have already done readers a disservice. Which state does best on which test is either common sense — big gap in DC, hmmm, white privileged parents in NW vs. poverty elsewhere in the district — or a circus about ephemeral gains or losses.

    We need some writers who get beyond the comparative standardized test scores and into the real lives of children.

  5. Submitted by Hiram Foster on 11/04/2011 - 12:43 pm.

    It is interesting to compare the differences in news coverage accorded to the NAEP, in different publications. The Star Tribune thought results were stuck, the Wall Street Journal found improvement, Ms. Hawkins, here is locating nuance. The numbers don’t change, but what they mean is definitely in the eye of the beholder.

    Something to bear in mind about NAEP scores is that they can be very much affected by demographic changes. For example, we are seeing an influx in Minnesota of populations, particularly minority populations, who don’t speak English. That might very well affect reading performance. A particular sore spot, an outlier if you will, is that the scores for fourth grade black kids are below those for Alabama. When Rep. Garofalo says, it’s ok for Alabama to beat us in football, but not in reading, those are the scores to which he is referring. For myself, I am less concerned with fourth grade scores than 8th grade scores, which tend to show progress. But left largely unanswered, although I could speculate about it, is why exactly are 4th grade black kids in Minnesota struggling?

  6. Submitted by Hiram Foster on 11/04/2011 - 12:49 pm.

    It’s very difficult to draw meaningful conclusions from this kind of raw data, although that doesn’t seem to prevent anyone, including me, from trying. That’s especially the case when comparing tests scores between cultures and countries, which have very different systems, with very different goals from ours. In particular, many of these countries to which unfavorable US comparisons are made, tend to be culturally and ethnically homogeneous. Finland is often favored for comparison purposes. Well, Finland is a country of 5 million people that didn’t hold 10 percent of it’s population in bondage as recently as 1865, and subjected them to massive discrimination since then. Quite possibly, if it did have such a local population Finland’s results wouldn’t be quite so glittering.

  7. Submitted by Carlos Mariani on 11/04/2011 - 01:43 pm.

    Great article. And actually, its not true that African American students fared better in MN compared to their counterparts in other states. 4th grade reading for example, shows Mn African American score of 199 in contrast to Black student national average of 205. In addition, the 30 point gap between white and black students in MN is larger than the 25 point gap at the national level.

    And MN white students on that test actually fared one point less than the national average fo their white counterparts.

    Bottom line, Mn has a bigger race gap in outcomes because we simply do a worse job of teaching students of color. I use “teaching” broadly here to mean not just what teachers do, but to include all that should go into learning, like addressing poverty, employment opportunity, just corrections policy, etc.

  8. Submitted by Alec Timmerman on 11/04/2011 - 02:13 pm.

    Our achievement gap is our greatest shame. it has to be fixed. Our racial achievement gap even more so.

    That being said, you can’t use these NAEP tests to bash public schools. It is helpful to look more in depth at the scores. At some point we will plateau, unless you think some day 3rd graders will be doing differential equations and calculus. Also, does our smaller sample size of minorities skew the data for them?

    The year to year growth has been “not statistically significant, but long term it has been tremendous.

    4th grade math–

    1992 26% proficient or above in Minnesota
    2011 53% proficient or above
    2011 88% at basic or above

    1992 29% below basic
    2011 12% below basic

    nationwide, 39% proficient or above
    18% below basic

    8th grade math growth

    1990-23% proficient or better
    2011-47% proficient or better

    1990- 67% Basic or better
    2011- 83% basic or better

    Growth. Not destination, but growth.

  9. Submitted by Thomas Swift on 11/04/2011 - 02:21 pm.

    I have a meaningful conclusion you can’t dispute, Hiram; 1+1=2=5-3=2/1 everywhere on the planet without regard to the presence or absence of slavery 230+ years ago.

    Less American kids know that than Finnish kids, and it’s apologists such as yourself that assist in maintaining that fact as the status quo.

  10. Submitted by Hiram Foster on 11/04/2011 - 02:55 pm.

    One problem with education is the issue of diminishing returns. This is both a statistical and educational issue. Statistically, you can only show much improvement. Only in Lake Woebegon are all the children above average. As a whole, half the kids must be above average, half below. That’s true both at North High, and Harvard University. Another problem is that good students are cheaper to educate than students who are not so good. Left unaddressed, what this can mean is that if you reduce funding, you might very well get a rise in test scores, not because kids as a whole are learning more, but because you are eliminating programs and support for the struggling kids who as a result drop out, relieving some of the downward pressure on test scores. The more you try, the more you fail, but is that really a good reason not to try?

  11. Submitted by Ray Schoch on 11/04/2011 - 02:56 pm.

    I’m with Hiram Foster (#5 & #6) on this one. I’m not a regular reader of the WSJ, but I, too, noted the difference in conclusion(s) between the ‘Strib and Beth, though the numbers are the same.

    I also agree that demographic changes may well play a significant role. In this context, the truism that seems to apply is the one that says, “Culture matters.”

    That seems true to me *within* societies as well as *between* societies. Mr. Foster’s example of Finland is well-taken, but it occurs to me that, in a society as large and diverse as this one (diversity being an issue that many other societies do not have to deal with to the degree that we do here in the U.S., and in Minnesota), ethnic and social subcultures may also have influences that are either unexplored, or unaccounted for, when both “experts” and us mere citizens are trying to decipher the results of standardized tests.

    I confess I’m inclined in Dennis Schapiro’s direction when it comes to the tests themselves. I fully understand the desire to be able to measure student achievement across a broad spectrum of ethnic, linguistic and cultural traditions and still be measuring “apples to apples,” but as Schapiro suggests, some of the result ought to be self-evident without going to the trouble of testing (his D.C. example), and some of it has nothing to do with the lives of the kids in the classroom taking that test.

    The achievement gap remains appalling between and among various groups of students, but the whole state, and maybe all of education as a human enterprise, would surely benefit from the discovery of a science-based answer to that great unanswered question: “Why?” Any teacher can tell you that culture doesn’t determine everything, and teachers all over the world have had kids in front of them with remarkably similar backgrounds, but very different interests in, and approaches to, learning. It’s part of what makes it an interesting job – or at least it was for me – but it’s also something that adds to both the difficulty of doing it well, and the frustration level that accompanies mediocre results.

    Like Mr. Foster, I could speculate about why a particular group of kids is struggling, in Minnesota and elsewhere, but as he suggests, drawing a meaningful general conclusion from this sort of data, though the attempt is commonplace, is very difficult. The tendency to approach the whole issue with our ideological blinders screwed on tight is pretty powerful.

    The best attempt I’ve seen so far at a general explanation boils down to the socioeconomic status of the parents – with a big asterisk to accommodate the emphasis that a few subcultures put on education, one that is far outside the mainstream. Whether that indicator remains an accurate measure or not, I’m not encouraged by what the scores suggest, and even if they’re far from definitive measures, significant problems appear to lie ahead.

  12. Submitted by Bernice Vetsch on 11/04/2011 - 04:01 pm.

    I’d say that poverty surely plays a role in the development of reading skills. When parents need to work two or more jobs in order to keep food on the table and pay the rent, they’re not going to have much time for reading. Therefore, their kids are not exposed to a home environment where reading books is part of life and probably won’t develop a love of reading until much later, if at all.

  13. Submitted by Alec Timmerman on 11/04/2011 - 06:19 pm.

    I am very, very pleased that you support the Finnish system. 100% unionized. free higher education for teachers. Higher pay for higher education. Highly respected profession.

    A country that has so many “right to work for less” states certainly could learn from Finland. Thank you for supporting unionized and respected education systems Swifty.

  14. Submitted by Solly Johnson on 11/04/2011 - 10:40 pm.

    Before comparing U.S. students to those in Finland, Canada, Japan, Korea, or other nations whose students perform better than ours, realize that many of these countries have socialist democracies, political and economic systems that several contributors in this post regularly criticize.

    In international studies Finland regularly rates at or near the top in honesty in government and business, concern for the environment, quality medical care, as well as education. Perhaps we can learn more from them than just achievements in education.

  15. Submitted by Hiram Foster on 11/05/2011 - 06:16 am.

    “I have a meaningful conclusion you can’t dispute, Hiram; 1+1=2=5-3=2/1 everywhere on the planet without regard to the presence or absence of slavery 230+ years ago.”

    Sure, and that may go to explaining why kids have more trouble reading than doing arithmetic. Language skills play less of a role, and maybe the fact that 10% of our school population speak English as a second language, to the extent they speak it at all.

    “Less American kids know that than Finnish kids, and it’s apologists such as yourself that assist in maintaining that fact as the status quo.”

    Lots of people these days think the way to solve a problem is to ignore it, and one way they do that is to pretend to believe that any effort to understand and explain a problem is an effort to excuse the problem away. Personally, I have no interest in excuses, and where the education of our kids is concerned, I neither offer them nor accept them. And I will tell you that whatever the reason for them, the results we are seeing from the NAEP tests are unacceptable across the board. I personally believe, that one way to teach better is to understand how we are teaching, what the impact is of what we do on what kids are actually learning and not learning. Testing should never be used as an occasion for excuses, but as a tool, one of many, that helps our teachers teach better.

  16. Submitted by Ryan Winston on 11/08/2011 - 06:18 pm.

    I feel like I have to repeat myself like a broken record! Spending for education should be our top priority! Our military is already so vast and powerful by orders of magnitude, it’s so wasteful to continue this trend! I think we need to cut our military spending by 30% and divert all of that funding straight into education. What would the world think then? I’m currently working towards my online Masters in Education at this site: http://www.cu-portland.edu/ and as a future teacher, I can’t stress how much more important classrooms are than bullets.

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