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Achievement gap still a concern in Minnesota

September 8, 2012
By Jenny Kirk , Marshall Independent

MARSHALL - Although Minnesota's education system and its students typically rank near the top on national achievement tests, the state continues to have one of the nation's worst achievement gaps. So why is there so much disparity between white students and minority students? And what are area communities and schools doing to resolve the issue?

According to Sam Kramer, federal program educator at Minnesota Department of Education (MDE), Minnesota students have some of the highest ACT and NAEP (National Assessment of Educational Progress) scores in the country. But, at the back of the class, seven subgroups of students, including American Indian, Asian, Black, Hispanic, free and reduced lunch, special education and English Learner students, are lagging far behind.

The MDE, Kramer said, wants to see that all of Minnesota's students are growing and succeeding. For those students who are trailing in the education system, their pace has to be quicker in order to catch up and reach the same level of success. As an example, Kramer used a 100-meter dash.

"We have our groups like our white students, students who do not receive free and reduced lunch, non-special ed students and students who are not EL at the starting line," he said. "Those groups of students are doing pretty well statewide. We know that. But we know from the data that we have some subgroups around the state that are not starting there. Those seven subgroups in our state have an achievement gap and they're starting 20 yards behind the starting line."

In order to catch up, the groups that are behind will need to run faster.

"The achievement gap reduction measurement measures the ability of schools to get those groups to run faster," Kramer said. "When I say run faster, I mean growing faster. We want their growth to be higher."

To ensure that those students who are further behind are improving their performance at a higher rate, the numbers are measured against statewide averages instead of in-school averages.

"Then we're not letting those schools who don't have big gaps because nobody is performing well off the hook," Kramer said.

On a positive note, MDE Commissioner Brenda Cassellius said early analysis of recently released data shows that the state is gaining traction in efforts to close the achievement gap. Using the Multiple Measurement Ratings (MMR) for the second straight year, in place of the federal No Child Left Behind measure, data showed that the most prominent growth occurred in statewide math, especially in regards to students who are English Learners, Black, Hispanic, American Indian and those who are eligible for free and reduced lunch.

"(Aug. 30) data shows that we're starting to bend the curve in the right direction," Cassellius said in a news release. "Minnesota's achievement gaps are still unacceptably large, but I believe the new accountability measures we've put in place, along with our new focus on closing gaps and improving outcomes for every student, will continue to accelerate the gains we see today."

A large portion of the NCLB waiver is devoted to reducing the achievement gap by 2017. But will it be enough?

Some educators believe that the new MMR system is certainly a step in the right direction since it provides detailed information that school districts across Minnesota can use, and ultimately, make positive changes for the better. While an annual MMR score is assessed for each school, using a combined measurement of proficiency, growth, achievement gap reduction and graduation rates, a Focus Rating (FR) strictly measures proficiency and growth of minority students and students who are receiving special services in an attempt to close the achievement gap.

"The MMR is an attempt to address some of the diverse populations that some schools have," Marshall Superintendent Klint Willert said. "Marshall, along with some of the other schools in the region, tends to have a higher minority percentage than some other schools. You have to take that into account because it can become a factor."

Of the state's 837,640 students last year, Marshall had 2,231. While the district has a 34.3 percent free and reduced lunch population compared to the state average of 36.6, Marshall has more special education students, 16.8 percent compared to the state's 14.8, and more students with limited English proficiency, 11.1 percent compared to the state's 7.7 percent.

While many of the subgroups are showing growth in math, MDE data revealed that the achievement gap is "not yet narrowing" in reading, although there have been some overall gains in literacy.

As a whole, Marshall Middle School students recorded a fairly low FR (12.83 percent) according to the latest data, while the three other district schools, Marshall East Campus Learning Alternative (92.40 percent), Marshall Middle School (87.16 percent) and West Side Elementary (60.49 percent), scored much higher numbers.

In addition to having a steady flow of students moving into the district, a number of other students from area K-8 systems often feed into Marshall High School. Each one of them might be at different levels within the education system.

"We know that when you get farther along in our system, just because of the dynamics of the area we serve, we have students coming to us from a variety of places," Willert said.

Using the MMR system, educators can isolate data in a variety of ways to analyze and make improvements.

"These are things that we look at as a curriculum team when we pull our teams together," Marshall Curriculum Director Amanda Grinager said. "We look at ways we can improve in certain areas."

While Westbrook-Walnut Grove and Tracy Area Public Schools have much smaller populations of American Indian, Hispanic and Black students than Marshall, but both districts have had an influx of Hmong students the past decade. Loy Woelber, superintendent at WWG and Tracy, estimates that Tracy Area has approximately a 15-20 percent Hmong student population, while at WWG, Hmong students make up one-third of the school.

"Some schools don't have the subgroups we have," he said. "We have people come and go, looking for housing and jobs. It's a different game to try and close some of these gaps."

While the Asian student average across the state is still below white and privileged students, WWG and Tracy Hmong students are performing at a much higher percentage.

"There is no gap there," Woelber said. "Our kids are all in the same boat. That gap isn't like what people would think it is. The majority of Hmong students are scoring well. Westbrook struggles more with the new white kids that move in."

With its high MMR score (86.06 percent), WWG Elementary was designated as a Reward School, which puts it in the top 15 percent of the state. The school also recorded an 89.27 percent FR, while WWG High School scored a 7.98 percent FR.

Woelber pointed out that both districts have more of a social-economic gap than anything else.

"The free and reduced lunch population is going up at both districts," he said. "The Walnut Grove School is really sitting at about 60 percent free and reduced lunch. We end up becoming a surrogate parent and supply free breakfast."

Besides offering free breakfast to all WWG and Tracy students to make sure they're ready for the challenges of each educational day, Woelber said he truly believes that after school programs have helped improve student achievement.

"It works out nice for the kids," he said. "I think it's made a big difference. There are less and less kids that show a gap."

Some education experts believe that making early childhood education a priority can be key in closing the achievement gap. Countless children come to kindergarten already trailing their classmates in knowledge. Others suggest that all-day, every-day kindergarten, quality teachers and positive community support can help make a huge difference. But one thing is certain: no two schools, like no two children, are completely alike.

Currently, Willert said, 23 different languages are spoken in the Marshall district. And, while a number of area schools do not have as much diversity, including those who do not even have a large enough subgroup population to get measured, Marshall has worked hard to address its diverse challenges.

"We've worked hard to maintain a minority advocate, which supports us, engages parents and implements the things we have," Willert said. "The English Learner summer program and Jumpstart are for minority students with limited English skills. We've been, and will continue to be, very proactive in addressing that ongoing change here at Marshall."

Change is often slow and hard to predict, but if graduation rates have anything to do with overall improvement, Marshall is on the right track. Students at Marshall are graduating at much higher rates (89.3 percent) compared to Minnesota's average (76.9).

"Our role in economic development is to make sure we're graduating our students and that they're prepared," Willert said. "The fact that we've seen an increase in minorities and have still seen an increase in student performance is a credit to our teachers."



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