After another round of disappointing standardized test results, Education Commissioner Brenda Cassellius said the state may never boost the academic performance of students of color without first addressing the outside factors that hold children back in school.
Overall, the pass rate on the state’s annual reading test was 60 percent this spring, up three-tenths of a percentage point. In math, 61 percent scored proficient, down six-tenths of a point.
Despite ambitious goals and targeted interventions in low-income, low-scoring schools, the state’s public schools in recent years have made virtually no progress on closing achievement gaps between student groups. Black students, for example, failed this year’s math and reading tests at twice the rate of white students.
In releasing this year’s Minnesota Comprehensive Assessment results Thursday, Cassellius said she’s increasingly certain that schools can’t do it alone.
“The only way we will close these stubborn gaps is if we address with equal urgency the opportunity gaps outside of school that impact children’s likelihood of school success,” Cassellius said.
“That means paying attention to and supporting families from birth, ensuring they have access to high-quality childcare and early education, stable housing, economic opportunity, fair wages that support families and health care when they need it.”
Jim Bartholomew, education policy director with the Minnesota Business Partnership, agreed that quality preschool helps, but he said schools alone can do a lot to make up for the challenges kids face at home.
“To argue that schools can’t educate kids because something else in our society isn’t working really begs the question, well, what can schools do?” Bartholomew said.
He said schools must take a greater interest in learning from those that are making a difference for students from historically low-performing groups.
“We have many public schools in our state and nationally that show that all kids can be successful despite some very challenging circumstances,” he said. “Why are we not doing a better job of talking to and listening and learning from them?”
Michael Rodriguez, a professor of educational measurement at the University of Minnesota, said Cassellius is right that outside factors loom large on student performance. He said the state has made smart policy decisions to try to close achievement gaps, but the MCA results don’t reflect that.
“We haven’t seen it in the outcomes, and that’s really frustrating,” he said. “This is not just the Minnesota story. We see this nationally.”
Still, Rodriguez said schools can improve outcomes for low-performing student groups by bringing the community into the schools, making instruction more culturally relevant to the students and demonstrating that education leads to greater opportunities.
“We see real movement when that happens,” he said.