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Let’s be clear: MCAs matter, and they reveal continuing student-achievement disparities

MinnPost file photo by Beth Hawkins
This year’s numbers again confirm a depressing truth: Minnesota has some of the largest disparities in the country when it comes to failing our students of color.

Fasten your seatbelt, it’s about to get a little ranty around here. I’ve been at the keyboard for hours trying to pound out a story that has become an annual tradition: an effort to cloak the release of state test scores in helpful context.

This year I’m seized by a tremendous impatience. If Minnesota kids continue to advance at the pace of the last decade, few of you reading this will live to see every child college and career ready.

Me? Swallowing the yearly dose of positive gloss will kill me long before that. So I am taking a deep breath and wading into the fray to defend a very unpopular standardized test.

Tuesday morning, the state Department of Education released the results of the Minnesota Comprehensive Assessments (MCA), which were administered in the spring. There are isolated pockets of double-digit gains and losses, but overall statewide scores were stagnant in science and math and up 2 percentage points over 2013 in reading.

Positive framing

Yet I have an inbox full of press releases that frame this in positive terms. Minneapolis Public Schools (MPS), for instance, “continues to see positive trends in MCA results for almost all student subgroups.”

African-American students saw no increase in math proficiency and 1 percent growth in reading for a districtwide rate of 22 percent. Scores among American Indians were flat except for a 4 percent increase to 15 percent in science.

Hispanic-Americans were up 1 percent each in reading, to 23 percent, and math to 31 percent. Asian-Americans gained 2 percentage points in each subject to 41 percent and 48 percent.

Not to kick a district while it’s down, but an accompanying grid outlining “notable achievements” spurred questions. For instance, the top and second-to-the-top achievements among African-Americans are gains of 19 percent in math proficiency and 17 percent in reading at Burroughs Community School.

Few black students among 800

Just 56 of the school’s 800 students are black, which averages out to fewer than 10 in each of its six grades. Since grades 3-5 take the MCAs, let’s assume 33 took the test. A little back of the envelope math suggests this could well mean six more kids passed than last year.

And consider the school’s incredibly low poverty rate of 12 percent. MPS has data that shows it is failing its middle- and upper-class African-Americans at rates hugely disproportionate to their white classmates.

Meanwhile, the Minnesota Department of Education calls the statewide numbers “progress” and “steady achievement,” even though African-American students in grades 3-8 pass the tests half as often as their white classmates.

St. Paul Public Schools’ (SPPS) choice of the adjective “slight” to describe its gains and declines seems refreshingly forthright — especially given that its overall increase of 1 percent brings the district’s reading proficiency rate to 38 percent.

Some want to curtail testing

I could go on. But my inbox is also bursting with press releases from groups, including Education Minnesota, calling for curtailing testing.

Asked the union’s president, Denise Specht: “Given the limited usefulness of standardized tests like the MCAs, it’s time for Minnesotans to ask why the federal government requires these tests, why so much taxpayer money goes toward developing and scoring them and why schools feel compelled to dedicate so many weeks to test prep.”

It is true that in some districts teachers are being asked to administer a tangle of assessments beyond the state and federal ones, many of which do not provide information they can use at the ground level to move their kids forward. But those are not the MCAs.

The MCAs are the set of numbers we use to evaluate how well a school or a district is reaching its various subgroups of students. Before federal law began requiring states to report this data by race, socioeconomic status and other factors we had no hard information about how many kids were being left behind.

This year: Year-over-year comparisons possible

Early versions were lousy. Making matters worse, in recent year more rigorous standards meant new tests. This year’s MCAs are the first time in recent years that a clean year-over-year comparison has been possible.

“The worst thing we can do is eradicate these tests because they are a clear reminder where we are and how the gaps persist,” explains Daniel Sellers, executive director of the advocacy organization MinnCAN. “We need to spend several solid years with these tests because changing them once again would just confuse students and parents.”

We — and by we I mean education policymakers, lawmakers and the journalists tasked with interpreting it all — have failed utterly to help the body politic understand what we are testing for and how the data gleaned will help students.

Quick — what springs to mind when you hear the phrase “standardized tests”? Chances are you hear the phrase as pejorative, with the adjective “standardized” suggesting something dead and bureaucratic. Most likely you imagine pupils engaged in the rote exercise of becoming, as Specht put it, “better bubble fillers.”

It will probably surprise you, then, to be reminded that the tests are referred to as standardized because they measure whether students possess knowledge contained in Minnesota’s academic standards. Standards created — wait for it — by educators.

Predictors of preparation for college

And according to a new report from the state Office of Higher Education, MCA scores are in fact a good predictor of a student’s likelihood of being prepared to enroll in and complete college.

Finally, the MCAs are used to calculate possibly the most meaningful state numbers, to be released Oct. 1. The Multiple Measures Ratings (MMRs) show not just how many students meet the standards but how much growth takes place in individual classrooms and schools.

To circle back to the start of this piece, so what do I make of the dissonance in my inbox? This year’s numbers again confirm a depressing truth: Minnesota has some of the largest disparities in the country when it comes to failing our students of color. And it’s not clear we can really say we are making even incremental progress.

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Comments (9)

  1. Submitted by Marisa Gustafson on 08/27/2014 - 01:28 pm.

    Sobering confirmation; now let’s move forward

    Well-written, sobering confirmation of what a lot of people suspected. Thanks Beth. I hope this helps light some of the fire needed to get folks to really collaborate on improving how well we serve our kids, including the public at large.

    We could start by really listening to and learning from the schools that ARE serving kids well, even when they have out-of-school challenges. It IS possible, and they obviously have some expertise in the area (but no, that doesn’t mean they are perfect; they might be the first to admit so).

    And yes, MCAs are just one measurement of achievement and progress. But these scores are not meaningless.

  2. Submitted by Beth Daniels on 08/27/2014 - 01:40 pm.

    Thank you, Beth Hawkins, for speaking the truth about the MCAs and about the stunning lack of progress that the Minneapolis and St. Paul public schools have made in addressing educational disparities that disproportionately impact students of color. Public education should effectively educate all children. That is the goal. Since children come to school with very different life experiences, the schools need to meet each child where they are at and bring them to the point where they can proficiently meet the educational goals we have set. To provide each child with what they need in order to succeed is a tall order. But many other municipalities are making progress. What is keeping our cities from learning how to do this? Ignoring, or burying, the evidence will not help. We need to figure out what, in the districts’ cultures, systems, procedures, etc., is “part of the solution” and what is “part of the problem.” Then strengthen the solution parts and replace the problem parts with workable solutions. It’s way past time to do whatever it takes to solve this.

  3. Submitted by Conrad Soderholm on 08/27/2014 - 11:41 pm.

    What do the MCA’s test?

    The results of standardized tests show nothing more clearly than the relative wealth of the students’ parents and the wealth of the communities in which they live. Beth Hawkins’ comments about Burroughs school suggest that this is also true of the MCA tests.

    • Submitted by Raj Maddali on 08/28/2014 - 09:30 am.


      Wealth is not a criteria for educational success at the basic RRR. Sadly, It is more often a correlative indicator of a parents interest in the child’s education. In St. Louis Park the highest percentile of scores are higher than Edina’s. The median in Edina will be higher due to the wealth factor. However the higher percentile kids are from first generation immigrant kids.

  4. Submitted by Raj Maddali on 08/28/2014 - 07:31 am.

    Round and Round We Go….

    Blame the tests, blame the schools, blame the teachers, blame everyone. Have program after program after program that puts not one iota of responsibility on the student. And wonder why there is no progress.

    No Child Left Behind was vilified. But the truth of the matter is it forced school districts to report the real failure of education. Before that the school boards used to make up stuff and hide failures. In St. Louis Park, I once even saw a powerpoint presentation that stated that minority parents should not be informed of their kids failures because it would “hurt their feelings”.

    So cue the starting gate. More programs ahead. Not one of which will work, because they don’t demand one iota of responsibility/accountability from the student or their parent.

  5. Submitted by Ann Kay on 08/29/2014 - 07:51 am.

    Curriculum & Instruction

    Good job, Beth. The problem is not the tests. It is that the curriculums and instructional techniques are not working for 60% of Mpls and St. Paul public school students who are not able to read at grade level by the end of third grade.

    It’s time for new instructional practices that engage and motivate, and build vocabulary, the #1 determinant of success in reading. One example is a software that uses singing to boost reading with astonishing results–1 year of reading (on average) in 13.5 hours of singing. The new nonprofit Rock ‘n’ Read Project http://www.rocknreadproject.org , dedicated to getting all kids reading at grade level, bought a retired MTC bus, retrofitted it into a mobile computer lab, and served 200 children this summer at Minneapolis Public Schools’ Hmong International Academy and the North Community YMCA Youth and Teen Enrichment Center. I was on the bus 8 weeks with amazing kids. I saw transformations in their attitudes and motivation about reading and dramatic improvement in reading achievement…even in the summer when most kids slide back.

    See Fox 9 News

    Thank you!

  6. Submitted by Joe Nathan on 08/29/2014 - 05:18 am.

    Learning from outstanding district & charter public schools

    As noted in this column, there are district & charter schools that serve high % of low income students and whose students have done well on the MCA tests:


    As Beth points out, the tests don’t measure everything important, but they measure some important things.

    One of the reasons for significant success in Cincinnati was that the educators, unions, parents, community members and others studied successful schools around the country, and then adapted/adopted many of their best ideas. Educators in Cincy also were given the chance to create new within district schools within schools.

    If we’re going to significantly reducing Minnesota’s achievement gap, we’re going to have to use a number of related strategies. We need to start by recognizing that there ARE public schools that have closed these gaps and that they have things to teach us.

  7. Submitted by Joe Nathan on 08/29/2014 - 01:37 pm.


    The article that I posted and the article that Mr. Maddali posted are not inconsistent. The graduation rate has gone up significantly as the Ohio Graduation Test has become more difficult.
    CIncinnati officials readily acknowledge they have more work to do in order to help students prepare for the ACT test.

    This is one of the reasons the Center for School Change works hard to encourage more students to take challenging AP, IB, College in the Schools and PSEO courses. We’d welcome assistance on this from Mr. Maddali and anyone else interested.

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