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Test score dips follow state trend: Officials cite new standards, rules as reason for decline

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BEMIDJI — Local students’ test scores in 2013 appeared to follow a state trend, showing a slight dip overall because of new standards and rules.

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“Overall, I think we are happy with our math scores and, probably like a lot of the state, we’re looking at reading scores and figuring why we saw some reductions in our proficiency rates,” said Dan McKeon, executive director of TrekNorth Junior & Senior High School in Bemidji.

The Minnesota Department of Education today released the 2013 Minnesota Comprehensive Assessment scores, making public students’ scores in math, reading and science. Media outlets were given access to the data Monday, under the pledge they would not release any results until today.

Locally, school districts appeared to follow a statewide trend exhibiting slightly lower reading scores as the most recent test included for the first time more challenging standards.

“Minnesota adopted more rigorous standards to help ensure students are career and college ready upon high school graduation,” the Minnesota Department of Education stated in a news release.

Students were tested on reading through the MCA-III in grades 3-8 and 10. Just over half of third- through eighth-grade students and 10th-graders met or exceeded state expectations, according to the results.

Kathy Palm, director of curriculum and administrative services for Bemidji Public Schools, said the state enacted a big change for the reading test as it raised the reading level and also refocused its focus. Before, the exam tested on vocabulary, comprehensive and literature and now the exam is testing literature and information texts.

“It really emphasizes a lot more of, ‘How do you do this?, and reading for nonfiction is huge,” Palm said. “It’s a big change and it’s a big change in how things are taught.”

The school district two years ago enacted its language arts review, at that time purchasing new curriculum more in line with new standards.

In the district, the percentages of students who passed — those who met or exceeded standards — ranged, on the low end, from 48.6 percent in fourth grade to 62.8 percent in fifth grade.

“We expected a dip in reading (scores),” Palm said. “Its always disappointing though.”

She said the district has placed an emphasis on reading in the elementary schools, working to ensure students are reading well by third grade.

Despite the dips, Palm said, Bemidji School District students performed well, outperforming the state averages in subcategories, such as American Indian student performances, special education, and free and reduced lunch students.

“I was really pleased” in that regard, Palm said.

One of the higher reading results came from eighth-graders in the Schoolcraft Learning Community, where 84.6 percent obtained a passing score.

Scott Anderson, director of Schoolcraft, a K-8 charter school, said the test results showed his students with about state averages in the lower grades and continued growth into higher grades, eventually often, surpassing state averages.

“That kind of held true in both reading and math,” he said.

At TrekNorth,its highest-performing reading test-takers were sophomores, as 67.6 percent of those students passed the test. Just over half of its seventh-graders passed the test and 56.5 percent of its eighth-graders passed.

McKeon said the latest test results continue to show TrekNorth students generally perform better the longer they are in the charter school system.

TrekNorth is a public charter school historically open to seventh-graders to seniors, though the school will begin hosting sixth grade this fall as well.

“We do better with kids who come to us young and stay with us for a number of years,” McKeon said.

Math

The MCA-III math test in 2013 experienced a change, tool. In 2012, under No Child Left Behind, students could take the online math test up to three times and record their highest score. But in 2013, the state’s waiver from NCLB required the state to provide students with only one opportunity to take the test.

“We did see that dip, and the state saw that as well,” Palm said.

She said students could take a practice test, similar to the MCA, but it didn’t count. She noted many students passed that test but didn’t pass the actual MCA-III.

“It’s important to look at today’s tests results for what they are: a snapshot in time that tell us us how students are doing in mastering our state standards,” stated Brenda Cassellius, the state’s education commissioner, in a news release. “What is needed now is to focus our efforts and stop moving the goal posts so teachers and students have a consistent target to hit.”

Locally,  in the Bemidji School District, more than 72 percent of all eighth-graders passed the math test as did 66.8 percent of all third-graders, led by third-graders at Northern Elementary, where more than 75 percent passed the test.

“Grade eight looks amazing compared to the rest of the state,” Palm said, referencing the state average of 58.8 percent of eighth-graders who passed the test.

TrekNorth’s junior-high students performed well, with 77.8 percent of seventh-graders and 78.3 percent of all eighth-graders passing the test.

“Math has been a real area of focus for us,” McKeon said.

Specifically, he said he was pleased with the results in subcategories. He said 77 percent of seventh-grade American Indian students at TrekNorth passed the test, compared to a statewide average of 37 percent.

Schoolcraft’s eighth-graders scored similarly well, with 76.9 percent of them passing. In the younger grades, percentage of passing students ranged from 57.9 percent in third grade to 62.5 percent in seventh grade.

“We’re going to start breaking all of this” in the coming weeks to figure out the best way to boost students’ learning experience, Anderson said.

Science

Locally, science scores were generally lower than those in math and reading.

Students were tested on science through the MCA-IIIs in grades 5, 8 and in high school.

In the Bemidji School District, the highest passing scores came from fifth-graders, at 57.4 percent. The district was led by Solway Elementary, which saw 86.2 percent of its fifth-grade students passing the test.

Palm, also commending Horace May students who had 67.1 percent of its fifth-graders passing and Central, with 64.1 percent, said the district will continue to look for ways to take those successes and share them in schools throughout the Bemidji School District.

The science tests were first administered in 2012. Statewide, fifth-graders, eighth-graders and high-school students all showed 1 percent to 2 percent gains.

As a district, Schoolcraft boasted the highest percentage of local students who passed the test as 66.7 percent of its fifth-graders and 69.2 percent of its eighth-graders passed the test.

Anderson said he was pleased with his students’ performance on the science tests.

But, he also noted, the tests are just one snapshot of a students’ learning experience. He also pointed out that the tests encountered computer problems, with some students being kicked out of the computer program every 45 seconds or so.

“It really is just one point in time,” Palm said about the importance placed on tests.

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