New test results provide clarity & confusion

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If you are paying attention, you’re confused. That’s my reaction to the release last week of National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) test scores involving Minnesota students. Fourth and eight grade reading and math results were published.

Minnesota’s two largest daily papers had different headlines, using the same data. The (Minneapolis-based) Star Tribune proclaimed, “State’s kids really are above average.” Their story began, “When it comes to math and reading, Minnesota students are way above the national average.”

The St. Paul Pioneer Press countered, “Minnesota holding ground in math, reading tests.” The first sentence of their coverage was: “Minnesota’s eighth graders are still among the best in the country in math, but everyone else is making gains.”

With due respect, both sentences contain accurate AND questionable statements. Here are a few facts about the results:

* In Minnesota, NAEP tested about 6400 students (about 500 4th graders from 131 schools and 2900 eighth graders at 144 schools). Minnesota has more than 800,000 public school k-12 students.

* Unlike other tests given by the state, only a small percentage of Minnesota’s students was tested. Too few students were test to permit comparisons among Minnesota schools.

* Nationally, 702,000 4th and 8th graders were tested, again, a small sample.

* NAEP tests have been given many times over the last 25 years, to determine whether we are making progress in various areas, and with what students.

* Results showed that Minnesota students tested ranked second nationally in eighth grade math, fifth in four-grade math, tied for sixth in eighth grade reading, and tied for fourth in fourth grade reading.

* Minnesota 4th and 8th grade students had the same (above average) scores in reading, 2005 and 2007. Nationally 4th and 8th graders did better in reading in 2007, compared to 2005.

* In math, Minnesota 4th graders gained 1 point in math from 2005. Nationally, fourth grade students gained two points in math.

* Minnesota 8th graders made 2 points progress in math, compared to 2005. Nationally, eighth grade students also gained 2 points.

Minnesota fourth and eighth graders ranked among the nation’s best. While the results show national gains, it is not true that “everyone else is making gains.” For example, Wisconsin students who were tested mostly improved, but their 8th grade math scores declined 2 points. Since only two grades were tested, the data does not support a generalization, “Minnesota kids really are above average.”

To further confuse things, last month results showed many Minnesota eleventh graders having trouble with math. The American College Testing Service reported recently that Minnesota college entrance scores were among the nation’s best, but only 31 percent of test-takers were ready for college in four core academic areas.

The truth? Minnesota consistently ranks among the nation’s best on tests and graduation rates (but in the middle on college preparedness, counting all college bound students, not just those taking the ACT) Thousands of Minnesota and U.S. high school graduates (including many from rural and suburban areas) are not fully prepared for college. Progress comes when we acknowledge accomplishments, and are determined to improve.

Joe Nathan, a formerly inner city public school teacher and administrator, directs the Center for School Change at the Humphrey Institute, University of Minnesota.