Duluth K-12 test scores still below pre-COVID levels

Duluth Public Schools students’ “Minnesota Comprehensive Asssessment” scores rebounded somewhat last spring, but are still lower than 2018-19.

Laura MacArthur Elementary School
A second-grade classroom at Laura MacArthur Elementary School in Duluth in 2018.
Bob King / File / Duluth News Tribune
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DULUTH — Some Duluth Public Schools students’ standardized test scores rebounded last year but are still a few notches below pre-pandemic levels.

Minnesota Department of Education officials on Thursday published a fresh round of testing data that indicates about half of the district's students who took the Minnesota Comprehensive Assessment science test last spring were “proficient” in that subject for their grade level. About 56.59% of students earned the same designation in reading, and 46% were deemed proficient in math.

That science score is slightly below last year’s mark of 51.59%; the reading score is slightly higher than last year’s 56.36%; and the math score is marginally better than the 45.4% figure recorded around this time last year.

Still, districtwide scores in all three subjects are sometimes dramatically lower than comparable marks set by student test-takers at the end of the 2019 school year — the last unhampered by the outbreak of COVID-19. State officials canceled spring 2020 MCA testing amid the first wave of the virus.

“I think it's important for this type of data to create a sense of urgency for us,” Superintendent John Magas told reporters Thursday at Ordean East Middle School. “We're not happy about the results we have, and I think it's important for us to work hard to try and improve. But this gives us a picture of part of our current reality.”


It’s a similar story across Minnesota as a whole, where students’ math scores were 0.8% higher this year than last year and 1.9% lower than last year in reading. They’ve fallen considerably since 2019.

“During the pandemic, there has been quite a bit of unfinished learning,” Magas said. “Even prior to the pandemic, we also had schools that were identified for challenges in academic performance. We have a lot of things underway that we have moving forward to close those gaps, but many of the gaps with historically underserved students have continued and, in some cases, been widened by the pandemic.”

The assessment results reinforce what state education officials already know, Heather Mueller, Minnesota’s education commissioner, said Thursday.

“Our students, families, school communities and educators need us to continue to meet this moment,” she said.

6 DPS schools to get more support

With those scores in hand, state education officials designated 371 schools and 15 school districts for further academic support via the “Collaborative Minnesota Partnerships to Advance Student Success” program, which is often shortened to “COMPASS.”

Six of those schools are in the Duluth district: Lowell, Laura MacArthur, Myers-Wilkins and Piedmont elementary schools, plus the Duluth Area Learning Center and Academic Excellence Online.

Those six schools are now set to get help from the state’s “regional centers of excellence,” where staff can offer specialized support for literacy, math and other areas.

State administrators based those designations off students’ scores last spring on the MCA and other tests, as well as graduation and attendance rates. Schools that didn’t meet a mandated threshold in any of those categories ended up on the state list.


At each of the Duluth elementaries, that’s because different student subsets performed relatively poorly on their tests:

  • At Lowell and Piedmont, it was special education students.
  • At Laura MacArthur, it was special education students; students who identified as two or more races; and students who are eligible for a free or reduced-price lunch, which is a common metric schools use to measure students’ socioeconomic status because families need to earn less than certain federal income thresholds to qualify.
  • Myers-Wilkins ended up on the list because special education students and Black students performed poorly on their tests. Each elementary was also put on the state list for attendance and enrollment maintenance issues.
  • The Duluth Area Learning Center, an alternative school downtown, is on the list because its 24.67% four-year graduation rate is below the hoped-for 67% threshold.
  • Academic Excellence Online is on the list because white students performed relatively poorly on their assessments.
Gary Meader / Duluth News Tribune

Magas said the district has many promising plans in place that could help students there. That includes “multi-tiered systems of support” that aim to help students who are struggling in a run-of-the-mill classroom with their vocabulary or other skills that might be lagging.

Duluth district leaders have also implemented “professional learning communities” at which teachers can talk shop about lesson plans or students who might be struggling and how best to help them. Each school also has a “continuous improvement team” that’s designed to address schoolwide needs for student behavior or academics.

“We believe those are research-based best practices that are going to really pay off for our students,” Magas said.

This year is the second go-round of this type of school designation under Minnesota’s “North Star” accountability system, which state administrators put together as part of their plan to adhere to the then-new Every Student Succeeds Act.

In the first round of designations in 2018, state testing and graduation data also designated the Area Learning Center, Piedmont and Myers-Wilkins for improvement.

On the list that year, but not this year, were:

  • Denfeld High School, which was identified for having a four-year graduation rate about 1.3 percentage points below the state 67% threshold.
  • Stowe Elementary School, where special education and students receiving free or reduced-price lunch didn’t do well on their state assessments.
  • Congdon Elementary, where special education students also did relatively poorly on their tests the year prior.
From the column: "The pandemic exacerbated burnout amongst child-care workers. Safety precautions and quarantines led to understaffing. ... Workers were already experiencing burnout, and the pandemic amplified it."

Joe Bowen is an award-winning reporter at the Duluth News Tribune. He covers schools and education across the Northland.

You can reach him at:
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