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State test results are varied in Carlton County

Local student performance on recent state standardized tests was mixed according to statistics released this week by the Minnesota Department of Education.

The Minnesota Comprehensive Assessments test students in math, reading and science. Nearly 500,000 elementary and high school students took the tests last spring.

In Carlton County, Esko once again paced area schools with 76 percent of test takers scoring as proficient in reading and 74 percent in math. The reading score was down three points from last year, but the math score was up five percentage points.

Cloquet schools performed well too, with 70 percent of students proficient in reading and 61 in math, gaining three points in reading and staying flat on the math score.

“We’re happy with the test results and happy we are showing progress,” Cloquet school superintendent Ken Scarbrough said. “We continue to see the results of hard work by our students and staff.”

The tests are used to gauge school district progress and also to measure what is termed the “achievement gap,” or disparities in performance between white students and some students of color. State officials have promised to cut the gap in half by 2017.

However, Scarbrough and others have noted that the gap is a “moving bar,” because as all students improve, cutting the gap in half is more difficult.

“That is the challenge we face,” he said. “But they have to test so progress can be measured, and the federal government has its measures too, and I guess they’re smarter than we are.”

Recent changes to state academic standards have made achieving proficiency more difficult. Statewide, 61 percent of students showed proficiency in math, which is unchanged from a year ago. Some 59 percent of students were proficient in reading, up two points from last year but down from 76 percent in 2012 when the standards were changed.

Cromwell-Wright was the only other Carlton County school district to meet or beat the state average in both areas, with 63 percent of students proficient in reading and 61 percent in math.

On the opposite end of the spectrum, the Wrenshall school district showed the poorest results, with a 40 percent reading proficiency, down eight percentage points from a year ago, and 37 percent proficiency in math, down 15 percentage points from 2013.

Test scores notwithstanding, last week’s national results showed that Minnesota students posted the highest ACT scores in the nation for the ninth consecutive year.

However, some argue that tests themselves are not always an appropriate way to measure student progress. Teachers, and their unions, have long argued that standardized testing takes away from actual instruction time, some tests are not culturally sensitive to all students and that “teaching to the test” doesn’t always help students learn core concepts.

“I’m conflicted when people talk about rising test scores,” Denise Specht, president of the statewide teachers’ union, Education Minnesota, told the Minneapolis Star Tribune. “It’s nice for educators to get a pat on the back, but they are being complimented for building better bubble fillers, which is a terrible goal for a school system.”

Scarbrough, for his part, finds the MCA tests a necessary task.

“Unfortunately, it’s stressful for the students and for the teachers, because so much rides on one test,” he said.  “Everyone wants to be able to show proficiency.”  

He also said the district is doing pre-screening of students prior to the school year so those in need of special help can get it sooner.

Some teachers also argue that the “achievement gap” is more properly described as an “equity gap,” and that students with limited opportunity in life have a more difficult time in education than those with greater opportunity.

Scarbrough has noted economic disparities in comments to staff, and is aware of the effect they have.

“Families are really starting to get pinched when it comes to school supplies, gas prices, food prices and the things that help students learn,” Scarbrough said. “We want to be sensitive to those needs and we recognize there is disparity.”

He added that the district now has a contract with Range Mental Health to provide screening and mental health services for students who need it.  “These things all add up when you are talking about education,” he said.  “We want to do the best we can to provide the best environment for all our students to learn.”