Why huge gaps between reading and math achievement in Minnesota?


by Joe Nathan, 6/30/08 • Something strange is going on: When state figures show only 34% of 11th graders statewide are passing the state’s math test, we have a large problem. Meanwhile 71% of Minnesota 10th graders passed Minnesota’ reading test, which they must do before graduating from high school.

The huge gap in passing rate is found all over the state: This year, forty-eight percent of Minneapolis 10th graders passed the reading test, compared with 26% of 11th graders who passed math. In St. Paul, it was 47% passing in reading, 18% in math. Eighty-two percent of Rosemount/Apple Valley/Eagan 10th graders passed reading, but only 46% passed in math. Thirty-four percent of Elk River 11th graders passed the math test, 70% passed the reading test. In Lakeville, 85% passed reading, only 49% passed math. Seventy-six percent of Bloomington’s 10th graders passed reading, and 46% passed math. Test results for each Minnesota public school, grades 3-11 are at education.state.mn.us.

Another huge gap exists between passage rates for 3rd and 11th grade in math. What’s happening when 81% of Minnesota’s 3rd graders pass the state’s math test, but only 34.4% pass the state’s 11th grade test?

A Minnesota Department of Education statement, released along with the reading and math scores, tries to be hopeful. It points out that there was a 9 point increase in 10th grade reading scores (compared with a 2 point increase in 11th graders in math) between 2007 and 2008. Students were not required to pass the high school reading test last year, but are required to do so before graduating now.

MDE suggests that making the math test required for graduation “will likely lead to similar increases” (next year) in the state’s math test. Perhaps.

But there was nine percent increase from 2007 to 2008, when reading became required. Even before students had to pass reading to graduate, more than 60% of them achieved the required level. This year, about 60% of the students FAILED the math test. So even if there is a 9 or even a 19 point gain in math passing rates – about half of the state’s students would fail this test.

Some Minnesota math teachers tell me that they think elementary and middle school standards are too low, and the high school standards are too high.

Over the last few years, Minnesota Department of Education officials have convinced legislators that math standards are too low and need to be raised. Legislators and MDE staff agree that additional training must be available to math and science teachers. Workshops are being held this summer around the state.

With better trained teachers, and more motivated students, the state’s passing rate may go up dramatically. We want to do right by our kids, to prepare them for what they will encounter. Higher expectations can be very valuable.

I am not an expert in math. Adjustments in early grades and high school requirements may, or may not need to be made. But I do think we need to watch this situation very carefully.

Joe Nathan, a former public school teacher and administrator, directs the Center for School Change, Humphrey Institute, University of Minnesota jnathan@umn.edu