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Inside the test scores: Two stories about Lucy Laney School, both true

Why didn’t new efforts manage to move the needle farther? Doubtless some of the answers are the same for Lucy Laney as they are for other struggling schools.

Lucy Laney Principal Mauri Melander: “What I was seeing when I was watching the numbers come in was they were really moving in the right direction in [grades] 3, 4 and 5, and 6, 7 and 8 not.”
MinnPost photo by Bill Kelley

With the grim results of the 2015 Minnesota Comprehensive Assessments in today’s headlines, which story do you want to hear about Lucy Craft Laney Community School? Because both are true, yet neither is the capital-T truth.

There’s the story about how, slight up- and downticks notwithstanding, one in 10 of its impoverished African-American students can read at grade level. That makes it one of Minneapolis’ lowest-performing schools.

Statistically, that means 90 percent of its kids will not enter high school on track to graduate — ground that’s rarely made up. And by poor in most cases we’re talking an income of $24,000 or less for a family of four.

In 2014, 31 of the school’s 50 teachers were in their first three years on the job; a third were in their first. Last summer, the principal had to recruit 17 new teachers.

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But then there’s the story of Tasha Mink, who just finished her third year as a math teacher at Lucy Laney. By conventional wisdom, her lack of experience ought to put her students at a disadvantage.

Last fall, 89 percent of her students were not just not proficient, but were significantly behind. But by this spring, that number had been slashed by more than a third.

By the end of the year, during which a novel system of supports was tried, almost a fourth of Mink’s 62 students were at or above grade level. Nearly as many were deemed “partially proficient.”

Lucy Laney 3rd grade math MCA scores, 2014 and 2015
While Lucy Laney’s 3rd grade math program made only modest gains in terms of the percentage of students who met or exceeded standards on the MCA between 2014 and 2015, it did see a reduction in students that didn't meet standards and an increase in the proportion of students partially meeting standards.
Source: Minnesota Department of Education

Growth at all levels

That’s not enough, but it’s significant — particularly given that schools often focus their efforts on the students “on the bubble,” or close to proficiency, to the detriment of the lowest performing. Mink’s numbers show the opposite, suggesting that there was growth at all levels in her classroom.

Rather than teach a little of everything like most elementary teachers, Mink just taught math and to one grade. She worked with a co-teacher, a math specialist who brought needed expertise — including data literacy — to the classroom. Because the two were able to work in small groups with students with differing needs, Mink’s classes even had some kids who went beyond grade level.

And the one-two punch of student engagement and a second adult all but eliminated behavior issues. All told there were just four incidents where students were sent out of the room for misbehaving — a victory even the highest performing schools can’t claim.

Coming at a moment when there is tremendous political pressure to get rid of the tests, the scores reveal no broad or systemic positive trends — despite several years of both marquee efforts and political failures.

Scores essentially flat statewide and in Twin Cities

Overall scores are essentially flat statewide as well as in Minneapolis and St. Paul.

This year MinnPost asked for help analyzing the annual state test data from the data experts at Generation Next, a Twin Cities nonprofit working to align community supports for education around five key points. The test results speak directly to two of the group’s goals: Literacy by third grade and math proficiency by eighth grade.

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Reading scores statewide are up one point from last year for a passing rate of 60 percent; math fell by two points to 60 percent.

Gaps persist largely unchanged between white students and children of color, impoverished learners, students with disabilities and kids learning English. In some subgroups and subjects, passage rates barely make it into the double-digits.

Pockets of gains

There are pockets where efforts appear to be bearing fruit. Five of Minneapolis’ nine lowest-performing, or “high priority,” schools posted overall gains of 5 percent or more in one or more subjects.

Four schools saw double-digit growth. And growth in students enrolled in the same program three or more years were 30 percent higher than their peers, according to interim Superintendent Michael Goar.

At the same time, scores at some typically high performing schools fell. Scores are down or flat at many of the Twin Cities’ high-achieving charter schools.

The data underscore concerns among public-education advocates that both central city districts are struggling to ensure that the most basic subjects are taught effectively.

When new academic standards in language arts were enacted here two years ago, reading scores fell dramatically, as they have done in most states that adopted the rigorous Common Core State Standards. Unlike the rest of the country, the shift has not generated major controversy here.

Nor has there been any mass effort to train teachers to teach the standards, which, in part because they are designed to encourage higher-order skills and critical thinking, are much more complex to teach to. One possible factor is that teachers are struggling, in some places unsupported.       

Interpreting the results

Lucy Laney Principal Mauri Melander says she’s not surprised by the numbers at her school. This year as the tests were administered, results — not the final “scrubbed” numbers but good approximations — were instantly available.

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“What I was seeing when I was watching the numbers come in was they were really moving in the right direction in [grades] 3, 4 and 5,” she says, “and 6, 7 and 8 not.”

That’s as expected, she says, because Lucy Laney hit “the co-teaching gold mine” in elementary grades but hasn’t been able to find anything as organic and effective in grades 6-8. And because younger students see more bang from other strategies that seem to be working.

Five years ago district leaders approached the school, where Melander was then an assistant principal, with a proposition. Math scores were slipping between fifth and sixth grades; would the school consider having a math specialist co-teach those students?

The experiment had some unexpected outcomes. The novice teachers then rotating through the building could get their feet under them while the specialists dealt with data collection and analysis and helped with classroom management. They also served as de facto mentors.

Two years ago in the middle of the school year Goar found some money to fulfill Melander’s request to put a math co-teacher in several other grades. The expansion was accompanied by a dramatic drop in suspensions and other behavioral incidents.

In fact, next year’s co-teachers will be paid for with money freed up by eliminating four behavior specialists.

Model now includes reading

Last year Lucy Laney expanded the model to include reading. Melander hired co-teachers — many from charters and other districts — with reading expertise. She gave them freedom to bring in curriculum that wasn’t necessarily what was being recommended by the central office.

Finally, teachers borrowed strategies for teaching English-language-learners. “White English is a barrier with these kids,” says Melander. “They are able to overcome it quicker in math. The ability to move from one dialect to another is a struggle.”

New hiring and retention processes helped Melander hang on to the newer teachers who were flourishing. In June, in contrast to last year, she had just two teaching vacancies to fill.

So why didn’t all this effort and promise yield bigger bottom-line results? Doubtless some of the answers are the same for Lucy Laney as they are for the rest of the schools struggling to move the needle.

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But here’s what Melander wants to tell her staff: Overall literacy may be up 2 percentage points over last year and math may be flat, but bigger gains in lower grades and among the students who have the most ground to make up to become proficient tell her the plan is a good one.

And the gains they are posting are being earned without efforts to juke the stats by, say, placing the kids who appear poised to cross into proficient with the specialists and leaving the rest without extra support.

In the end, both Lucy Laney stories are true. And what Melander really, really needs is for the center to hold.