State standardized test results released in late August show the gap between minority and white students in the Duluth school district is slowly starting to narrow, but most scores for minority students remain well below those of their white peers.

On the reading test, black students, who make up 8.5 percent of the district’s enrollment, were 27 percent proficient while white students, making up 80.5 percent of enrollment, were nearly 64 percent proficient. Math scores for those groups showed a similar disparity. Reading proficiency for black students had improved only slightly from the previous year, with math scores jumping a noticeable 7.5 percent.

The Minnesota Comprehensive Assessments are used to determine the growth taking place in each school since the state education department received a waiver from the federal No Child Left Behind law in 2012 and put in place its own, less punitive accountability measures. Its multiple measurement ratings will be released Oct. 1 and are considered by some educators to be more important than test scores.

Gains are good, even if it’s a small gain, said Daniel Sellers, executive director of MinnCAN, a St. Paul group advocating for education reform. Proficiency on the MCAs, he said, correlate to a student’s ability to graduate and be successful in college. The new system focuses on readying students for either college or a career.

But when scores are as low as some of these, he said, referencing both the Duluth and state averages, “Moving 1 percent per year is just not nearly enough. That means it’s going to take generations at that rate before (high enough numbers of) kids are actually proficient.”

The state’s goal is cutting the achievement gap in half by 2017.

“More needs to be done to ramp up those results,” Sellers said.

Duluth this year started two things it hopes will work to do just that. A new daily 30-minute period in the high schools gives students time to get help, read or study. Teachers districtwide also have time within the work day to meet and go over test data, talk about teaching methods and observe each other. It’s something that Duluth’s low-achieving elementary schools have done in recent years, which helped bring up their reading and math scores school-wide and in various subgroups.

Schools such as Laura MacArthur, Stowe and Myers-Wilkins all saw large jumps in various groups with math, for example, in 2014. Stowe’s low-income population went from 39 percent to 55 percent in proficiency and Myers-Wilkins from 41 percent to 56 percent for the same group.

Laura MacArthur’s efforts weren’t without controversy. The school was criticized last year in a parent’s complaint to the state, alleging it wasn’t teaching science and social studies. That prompted the state to direct the district to update its entire curriculum this summer. Less than half of it was current.

The largest gains were at the schools designated by the state as the lowest achieving, such as Laura MacArthur, said Superintendent Bill Gronseth.

The work done at those schools - including teacher collaboration and intervention work for students based on level of need - is work that will be done at all schools going forward.

“I don’t want to take away from the gains they (students in subgroups) have made, but we do need to increase the rate of growth,” he said, noting that’s why the district is changing the way it’s addressing the achievement gap.

Research shows that one way to help improve the academic performance of black and Native American students is for teachers and other staff to build better relationships with them, said William Howes, coordinator of the district’s Office of Education Equity.

His office will offer training to employees in that area this year. Updated curriculum and new instructional coaches will also work toward narrowing the disparities, he said.

“Those numbers aren’t acceptable for most parents or for staff here,” Howes said. “Those are numbers we all want to see change and we need to make sure that remains a priority.”   

The district hasn’t kept pace with the state averages for several subgroups in reading and math, including for special education, Native American, white and black students. For some, such as Native American students, the district lies within a percentage point or two. For others, the difference is more apparent.

A more difficult reading test was introduced in 2013, based on the national Common Core standards. Scores dropped significantly that year from the year prior. Continual changing of tests is hard on teachers, parents and students, Sellers said, and makes it hard to track progress.

The state teacher’s union president, Denise Specht, recently questioned the merit of the tests, saying they “build better bubble fillers.”

Tests don’t define students, Gronseth said. Schools are working to prepare kids for careers just as they are for college, and tests are only a part of that.

“Our focus needs to be on student success in life,” he said.




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