When the Duluth School Board meets in August, Tawnyea Lake will explain across-the-board increases in local students' proficiencies in math, reading and science.

"We've made increases in all three areas," said Lake, the Duluth public schools director of performance, assessment and evaluation.

Newsletter signup for email alerts

When she does report to the school board, Lake won't be using data exclusively from the Minnesota Comprehensive Assessments. The state's annual MCA results were unveiled Wednesday and Duluth's results - while mixed - showed the district below statewide averages in most grades, across most categories. 

Of the roughly 4,500 students tested in grades 3-8 and 10-11, only the district's fifth-graders were above the state averages in both math and reading (64.6 percent to the state's 60 percent in math; 67.3 percent to the state's 67 percent in reading). Every other grade was below the state average in math. Only eighth- and 11th-graders joined the fifth-graders in having above-average reading scores. Only high schoolers beat the science average, with the fifth- and eighth-graders tested falling shy.

Graphic: 2015 math, reading and science test results

In an interview with the News Tribune to discuss local students' results, Lake and the district's new assistant superintendent, Amy Starzecki, said all-accountability scoring due out later this year holds deeper meaning for the district. They described how it folds MCA results into additional and more nuanced testing, including for students with significant cognitive disabilities.

"It will be a better indicator of the district's progress," Lake said.

When confronted with MCA results that showed marked declines in Lincoln Park Middle School's seventh- and eighth-graders in math and reading, the administrators were unified in saying the fight to end the district's achievement gap between schools in the city's east and west ends was not over yet.

"We know we need to continue to focus on that and narrowing the gap," Lake said. "Lincoln Park is one of those schools where that gap is evidenced."

Schools in the western half of the city - where low-income and minority populations make up greater percentages of the student populations - continued to perform poorer than schools such as Ordean East Middle School, which held firm or made increases across categories in 2015's MCA results.

When reached by the News Tribune, the Lincoln Park principal, Brenda Vatthauer, deferred comment to Lake. Both Lake and Starzecki said it would be unfair to use the MCA's single year of three data points per grade as a tool to judge any school's performance. They did point out that Denfeld High School saw increases in all three disciplines.

"Change takes time," Lake said. The administrators both pointed to the implementation last year of professional learning communities in the schools. Rather than the age-old practice of supervising lunch rooms or study halls, teachers within the same grades or departments are excused from those duties and instead gather weekly to discuss points of interest with students and the curriculum. Paraprofessionals are now being used to handle the supervisory tasks once left to teachers.

The practice paid immediate dividends two years ago when it was implemented on a pilot basis at Laura MacArthur Elementary School; that school continued to see mostly gains in 2015's MCA results.

"We've been able to do it district-wide and we're seeing the results of that work," Lake said.

Administrators all the way up to the state's education commissioner, Brenda Cassellius, stressed the importance of emphasizing growth over point-in-time test results.

In her conference call to discuss the rollout of the MCA results, Cassellius was faced with declining math scores statewide and stagnant or dropping test scores in African-American students and students who are being served by special education.

The MCA results, Cassellius said, mean more for teachers who have access to each student's proficiency numbers across years, meaning they can see and respond to growth that a single point-in-time cannot possibly reflect.

"All you see is proficiency," Cassellius said. "You're not seeing partially proficient students who are marching their way to proficiency."

If the MCAs aren't a perfect reflection of a student's growth, the results are also not an accurate reflection of a single school's teachers and its leadership, explained Starzecki, who noted that by state statute there is a teacher and principal evaluation process that has its own accountability measures.

"I wouldn't anticipate any leadership changes as a result of assessment results," Lake said.

Lake and Starzecki said that while an urgency exists to improve the district's standardized scores, they hoped existing new measures would impact future district-wide improvement. Every building currently has its own improvement plan that is specific to its needs, but also uniform with district-wide goals, they said. They cited the hiring of four fulltime content specialists within the district who are tasked with making sure curriculums both align with state standards and have cultural relevance to a broader swath of the student population.

"I think it's important to remember the large scale," Lake said. "As a district you're not going to see major jumps each year. You look at the trends over time."


To view the complete results go to education.state.mn.us/mde/index.html

Once there, click on "Data center," followed by "Minnesota report card," then "Test results."