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Duluth schools show signs of progress in state test scores

The socioeconomic disparities among various Duluth schools remain apparent in state test scores released today but there are signs of improvement — especially at the elementary level.

The Minnesota Department of Education released performance data for Minnesota Comprehensive Assessment reading, math and science tests given last spring. Schools on the eastern side of Duluth once again had high MCA scores, except for science and math results in the secondary schools. Some schools in the western and central parts of the city still lag behind others, but gains are being made.

Stowe, Myers-Wilkins and Laura MacArthur elementaries and Lincoln Park Middle School — buildings with high numbers of low-income students — all saw modest to large increases.

No increase was more dramatic than that made by Laura MacArthur fifth-graders, who jumped from 41 percent to nearly 80 percent proficient in math on the MCA-III test, which most students take.

“There are a lot of really good things to celebrate in the data,” said Tawnyea Lake, the Duluth school district’s director of assessment, evaluation and performance. She noted the district is working to replicate some of the things Laura MacArthur has done to raise scores, which has included teacher collaboration.

The school is in the final year of a three-year designation that ranked it among the lowest-performing of the state’s schools. It’s been given more than $1 million in grant money to help raise student achievement and it has worked: Last school year, the school was given a new designation that put it in the top 40 percent of schools statewide for performance.

But later in the school year it came under fire after a parent complaint to the Minnesota Department of Education alleged that it wasn’t teaching science or social studies in order to concentrate on reading and math. After a review, the state directed the district to update its entire curriculum — which was more than 50 percent out-of-date — to meet new standards.

Science scores released today show that Laura MacArthur fifth-graders — the only elementary grade tested in the subject — increased proficiency from 23 percent to 33 percent.

Science has been a focus of the curriculum update, which was done this summer, said assistant superintendent Ed Crawford, and teachers will be allocating time for all subject areas in the year ahead.

While Laura MacArthur showed improvement in science scores, the state would like all four subject areas to be taught at the elementary level throughout the day and year to prepare students for college, said Brenda Cassellius, commissioner of the state education department. A school shouldn’t stop teaching a subject area, she said.

“That never works for children … We make our tests to match our standards,” she said. “Obviously if there is a gap between what’s taught and what’s tested, that will reflect in your test scores.”

The district made progress toward meeting the state’s goal of cutting the achievement gap in half by 2017. Various subgroups made gains in reading and math, including low-income and black students.

The Duluth district is consistent with the state average for reading and a bit below the math average, Lake said.

Grade levels at some schools performed better on the math test than the reading test. The tougher math test has been in place longer, and teachers have had more time to master teaching the standards. The reading test, a more difficult assessment based on the national Common Core initiative, was put in place last year. Cassellius said the rebound time might take a couple of years.

The state teachers union said Monday in a news release that fewer tests would help educators improve learning, and questioned the use of MCAs to that end.

“The results come too late for teachers to help the students they had last spring and the results are too unsophisticated to guide teachers who have those students this fall,” said Denise Specht, president of Education Minnesota.

Rising test scores are nice for teachers, she said, but grades, conferences and emails give a better sense of how students are learning than “academic snapshots” from a “few days last spring.”

Statewide, all student groups except for English learners improved by at least 1 percent in reading, and students in grades 3-8 all saw increases. Only grade 10 saw a drop. Students in grades 5 and 8 bumped up 1 percent in science, although high school students remained the same. There were some small improvements in math for students in grades 3-8.

Another indicator of state-level improvement is the Nation’s Report Card, which recently ranked Minnesota fourth-graders first in the nation in math and 10th in the nation in reading.

Results are available on the Minnesota Report Card at Data from these tests are used to determine the multiple measurement ratings, to be released Oct. 1. Those ratings are the state’s new accountability system under its federal waiver from the No Child Left Behind Act.