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Test scores hold steady in Bemidji area

ST. PAUL -- Newly released state testing scores are more or less the same as previous year’s rounds.

The Minnesota Department of Education released on Monday the results of last school year’s Minnesota Comprehensive Assessments, a series of math, science, and reading tests administered to elementary, middle, and high schoolers statewide. The number of Bemidji-area students deemed “proficient” -- meaning they met or exceeded standards -- after last spring’s tests is roughly in line with figures from 2016 and earlier.

A total of 59.2 percent of Bemidji Area Schools students who took the assessments were labelled proficient in math this year, compared to 60.1 percent the year prior. A total of 59.7 percent were proficient in reading -- up ever-so-slightly from 59.4 last year -- and 55 percent were proficient in science, precisely the same percentage as the district’s 2016 mark. The district’s reading marks have hovered between 59 and 60 percent since 2013, and the science proficiency rate rose from 51.4 percent in 2013 to 54.4 percent in 2014, but has essentially stayed put since then.

Smaller schools and school districts recorded significant-seeming numbers that could be the result of a relatively small student population.

In Blackduck, which has about 600 students, four more testees were considered proficient in math, but the proficiency rate dropped more than 2 percentage points because 17 more students took the test.

And in Red Lake School District -- with a 1,500-strong student population -- 22.5 percent of tested students were considered proficient in reading last year and this year, but 10 more students earned that designation.

The education department pointed to modest statewide increases in reading proficiency for students in grades 3-8 and 10; math for 3-8 graders; and science amongst high schoolers and students in grades five and eight.

"Test scores are just one part of the picture to understand how students are doing in Minnesota," said Education Commissioner Brenda Cassellius in a statement that said scores showed “little change” from last year.

"It's frustrating to see test scores slowly increasing over time, but there's more to providing a student with a well-rounded education than can be seen in a test. I am proud of our students, and of the teachers, administrators, paraprofessionals, support staff and many others working every day to help every student succeed."

Using the data

Bemidji Area Schools leaders have an annual “data retreat” in August to look over and discuss testing and demographic data, and they use that analysis to inform the district’s yearly “aims, goals, and measures” document. The goals for the 2016-17 school year included across-the-board 3 percent increases in all students’ math, reading, and science proficiency rates, but measuring it against the scores reported this week is tricky because the district goals incorporate a second test for students with cognitive disabilities -- the Minnesota Test of Academic Skills -- and are based on testing data from students enrolled there on Oct. 1, a date when districts get their first official headcount after early-year enrollment has settled somewhat. District staff said they use that data set because that’s what the education department uses to measure their yearly progress.

Education department staff will use this year and next year’s assessment results in their next round of “school identifications,” according to the statement released Monday. Those identifications will determine which schools can receive state support under federal Title I law.

In the Bemidji area, that’s meant schools such as Red Lake Middle School have been able to take part in a national “Turnaround Arts” program that’s worked to integrate art and the arts into the curriculum there, as well as score a day-long visit from singer/songwriter Citizen Cope.

Achievement gap

The bulk of Minnesota’s overall student body met or exceeded testing standards in all three subjects, according to the education department’s website. That includes the Minnesota Test of Academic Skills and the more widely-administered Minnesota Comprehensive Assessments.

Even in that broader picture, this year’s data shows a persistent achievement gap between white students and their non-white counterparts. The gap is a longstanding problem in education and policy circles, and Minnesota has one of the most pronounced in the United States.

In 2017, 67.6 percent of white students who took the skills test or the comprehensive assessment were deemed proficient in math, compared to 30.9 percent of students who identified as “American Indian/Alaska Native”; 29.2 percent of “Black/African American” students; and 35.7 percent of “Hispanic/Latino” students, according to the state education department’s website, which reports similarly large gaps in reading and science.

In Bemidji Area Schools, a greater percentage of American Indian students were proficient in math, reading, and science than the state’s overall number for that demographic, but they nonetheless lagged behind the district’s white students in those categories, whose proficiency rate is more or less in line with the one for white students statewide.

Attempts to reach Bemidji Area Schools Superintendent Jim Hess for comment Monday were not successful, but he’s stressed the need for the “front” and “back” of the district’s classrooms look like one another, meaning that the teaching workforce and student body approximate one another demographically, and the School Board in April voted to hire an American Indian Culture and Curriculum Specialist for the upcoming school year.

Joe Bowen

Joe Bowen covers education (mostly K-12) and American Indian affairs for the Bemidji Pioneer.

He's from Minneapolis, earned a degree from the College of St. Benedict - St. John's University in 2009, and worked at the Perham Focus near Detroit Lakes and Sun Newspapers in suburban Minneapolis before heading to the Pioneer.

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