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Minnesota's math standards need revision, national school reform group says

ST. PAUL — Minnesota's mathematics standards have been around longer than any other state's, and a national education reform group says they need to be updated sooner rather than later.

The state's math benchmarks, essentially what students are expected to learn at each grade level, were part of a standards review conducted by the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation.

Researchers found Minnesota's standards were outdated and lacked specificity. State leaders last updated the benchmarks in 2007, and in 2015 lawmakers delayed the next review until 2021.

"We've learned new things about how kids learn math and how math should be taught," said David Griffith, senior research and policy associate for Fordham, who oversaw the review. "Minnesota's standards are due for an update."

Fordham's critique comes as Minnesota continues to have some of the top math scores in the U.S. on the National Assessment of Educational Progress or NAEP, typically referred to as the nation's report card. Minnesota also has one of the country's worst academic achievement gaps between students of color and their white peers.

Fordham graded Minnesota math standards as weak, with the state scoring six out of a possible 10 points. Researchers did not review the state's English benchmarks, which are aligned with the often controversial Common Core.

Minnesota Department of Education officials didn't deny there is always room to improve state standards and revise how concepts are taught. But they said Fordham's review missed much of the state's support system for math teachers and the intricacies that come with prioritizing local districts' control.

"We feel we have very strong standards," said Doug Paulson, director of academic standards for the state Department of Education. "We are constantly looking for ways to continue to improve. Also, there are a number of things Fordham didn't take into account."

Do teachers know what's needed?

Fordham found Minnesota's standards don't include overall summaries for each grade level to directly explain to teachers the core concepts and skills students need to master.

"It is pretty important to have some sort of summary that helps a teacher understand this is the bottom line that we are trying to get at," Griffith said.

But Paulson says that type of detail is instead included in a group of supplementary materials, called "frameworks," the state developed with other partners including SciMathMN, a group that supports teachers and students. "They didn't review all of our support services," Paulson noted.

Griffith acknowledged that Fordham's work focused just on state standards in order to facilitate a state-by-state comparison.

Paulson also responded to a critique in the review that faulted the state for not prescribing math courses at the high school level. Course development is left up to individual districts rather than dictated by the state, especially at the secondary level when students often seek a range of options, he said.

Jim Bartholomew, education policy director for the Minnesota Business Partnership, said Fordham's review was a good reminder that state leaders should routinely re-examine not only school standards, but the supports they provide to teachers.

Bartholomew said he remembers robust discussion about math benchmarks and ways to support teachers when the benchmarks were first adopted, but he questioned whether educators still get the same support.

"You could have the best standards in the world, but if no one knows what they are or how they are going to translate to students, they're no good," Bartholomew said. "We have to do both very well."

Reviews take time

One big reason Minnesota's math standards have been on the books so long is due to timing, Paulson said. The state had just wrapped up rewriting the math benchmarks when the Common Core was finalized, so education leaders decided to adopt those English standards but stick with what had just been updated in math.

The Common Core was championed by the National Governors Association to ensure some uniformity in standards across the U.S. At first, most states embraced the idea, but it became politicized, in part, after President Barack Obama encouraged states to adopt the Common Core as part of his Race to the Top education funding program.

Minnesota is reviewing its science standards now, then will move on to English and social studies before focusing on math in 2021. It can take up to five years between when a review begins and changes are implemented in classrooms.

Minnesota has struggled with implementing new education benchmarks and supports for teachers. A 2016 analysis by Wilder Research found just one in six Minnesota schools were using the English standards that had been revised in 2010.

While the state provides support to teachers, officials typically rely on local leaders to implement new benchmarks, Paulson said. "(Implementation) is something we are struggling with as we look at our data."

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