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Duluth schools' test scores a mixed bag

(File / News Tribune)

State standardized test results released Monday show the Duluth school district faring better than the state average, but with some groups of students and schools still lagging far behind.

The numbers of students in Duluth proficient in reading and science are a few percentage points higher than the state, while math is about the same. But less than one in four black and special education students across the district are proficient in those areas, where the Minnesota Comprehensive Assessment is concerned. (Some special education students take an alternate test, depending on their cognitive abilities.)

"Overall, we are pretty pleased with the results," said Tawnyea Lake, the district's assessment and performance director. "If we look back 5-6 years at scores for reading, math and science, we continually made increases in proficiency, and in doing so, we've outpaced the state."

As for the results of black and special education students, in particular, "that is definitely not a place where we want to be," said assistant superintendent Amy Starzecki. "We will continue to be more focused there."

The scores are released at a time of change for the Minnesota Department of Education, which just announced a new accountability system under federal law, to be in effect for the 2018-19 school year. These new test results will be combined with next year's, when the new system is in place. That means no designations for low or high-performing schools will be announced following this release.

State scores changed very little from last year. Education Commissioner Brenda Cassellius said that they are "one part of the picture" in understanding how students in Minnesota are doing.

"It's frustrating to see test scores slowly increasing over time, but there's more to providing a student with a well-rounded education than can be seen in a test," she said in a statement.

The new accountability plan under the Every Student Succeeds Act — which replaced No Child Left Behind — is meant to address persistent achievement gaps. All schools will be evaluated — not just those receiving federal funding, as has been done in the past. Schools will be evaluated on achievement on tests, progress over time, graduation rates, attendance and progress toward English-language proficiency.

A state goal that has been pushed back under the new plan was to have achievement gaps between various student groups cut in half by this year. Duluth would not have met that goal in several areas.

Achieving growth

Starzecki said some of the work done to improve reading proficiency in certain Duluth elementary schools is showing up in the data. Schools spending more time coaching staff are also making gains, she said, "so even though overall proficiency might not be as high as some of the other schools, they are making nice growth so that we will hopefully get to a place where we can close gaps."

Myers-Wilkins Elementary saw an increase in reading scores, and Native American students as a whole group had increases in every area. Piedmont Elementary, too, saw gains in all three subjects. Denfeld and East high schools had large jumps in science, bouncing back from a big dip last year.

East principal Danette Seboe credited the work done by teachers to target specific needs of students, who get extra help during an advisory period, which all of the secondary schools have.

"This takes a lot of time and hard work ... and is happening in every department here and across the district," she said.

Both high schools also had large increases in reading scores, and smaller jumps in math, where Denfeld still struggles with only 27 percent proficient. Science proficiency for eighth graders at both Lincoln Park Middle School and Duluth Edison's North Star Academy dropped, a couple of percentage points to 27 percent at Lincoln Park and nearly 14 percentage points to 32 percent at North Star Academy. Stowe Elementary, which will receive a new principal this year chosen to improve academic performance there, saw substantial drops in both reading and math scores.

The district wants to replicate what is working at some schools to raise achievement, Starzecki said, pointing to Ordean East Middle School as one school to learn from. She also said the same focus that has been put on reading at the elementary level will be put on math.

"We know that big systems change takes time, so when we are looking at our trend data from 5-6 years back, we are starting to see some momentum," Lake said.

Go to the Minnesota Report Card — http://rc.education.state.mn.us — to dig deeper into the test results from your local school.

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