Area educators find positives in mixed test scores

Aug. 24—MANKATO — The share of K-12 students in Minnesota who hit grade-level proficiency standards for reading plummeted during the pandemic years, falling from nearly two-thirds of students in 2019 to fewer than half in 2022.

In math, the number who were proficient dropped by about 10 percentage points in statewide tests.

The percentages have stabilized in the past two years, but the latest scores released Thursday remain well below 2019 figures statewide and in most south-central Minnesota school districts. Scores and other performance measures for school districts and individual schools can be found at (The scores on the Minnesota Department of Education's "Minnesota Report Card" vary slightly from the data released by the department on Thursday, which is what was used for the chart that accompanies this story.)

Both state-level education leaders and those in local districts were highlighting the positives while pledging to use the data to guide improvements in how students are being taught.

"We've made some progress and have more to go," said Minnesota Education Commissioner Willie Jett, mentioning the decline in statewide scores in science and reading and the slight rise in math.

In Mankato Area Public Schools, the number of students proficient in each area was largely stable but exceeded the statewide average in all three categories by two to three percentage points. Other districts scoring above the statewide average in all three were New Ulm, Maple River and Lake Crystal-Wellcome Memorial.

Lake Crystal was the regional champion by a hefty margin. More than 65% of LCWM students met or exceeded proficiency standards for their grade in reading compared to just under 50% statewide. The Knights mostly slayed the math standards as well with more than 61% proficient — 15 percentage points higher than the rest of Minnesota. In science, 42.9% of LCWM students were proficient compared to 39.2% statewide.

"We're pleased with the scores," said Lake Crystal Superintendent Mark Westerburg. "Of course, we look at them from the perspective of: No matter what they are, what can we do to continue improving the pattern?"

Westerburg attributed the solid performances in part to a new reading curriculum in the elementary school that's based on the latest in reading science and an updated math curriculum.

"It also says that our elementary does a really good job of preparing, because you can't pull out good high school scores if they don't come in with a good foundation," he said.

Probably the most notable difference with LCWM's achievement results is how little the pandemic impacted the performance of the district's students. The scores there barely dipped, if at all, during the peak COVID years and are now above what they were in 2019.

"One reason is that the elementary — even at the height of the pandemic — continued to be in-school," Westerburg said.

The administration and School Board also were intent on getting older students back in classrooms as quickly as possible, even when some parents were adamantly opposed for health reasons.

"But the bulk of them understood why, and it paid dividends," he said.

The reading tests in the proficiency measures are given to kids in grades 3 through 8, as well as the 10th grade. In-person instruction was particularly helpful there, according to Westerburg.

"It's pretty hard teaching a second-grader reading from a laptop," he said, referencing Zoom-based lessons.

In Mankato, elementary school students were quickly back in the classroom, too, provided their parents didn't opt for distance learning, said Travis Olson, teaching and learning director for the district. And throughout the grade levels, teachers and staff worked to get students back for in-person learning for as many days each week as distancing guidelines allowed.

"The flexibility that our staff showed in meeting student needs was pretty phenomenal," Olson said.

Athough the share of proficient students dropped from eight to 11 percentage points in science, reading and math between 2019 and 2021, the scores are starting to rebound. And Mankato schools continue to exceed statewide averages in each category and for every student group.

Continued improvement depends on boosting attendance marks. The Mankato district had just 56.9% of students consistently attending school in the 2020-21 school year — which is defined as missing no more than one of every 10 school days, according to the MDE report card.

The attendance figures are a lagging statistic, meaning they are from the previous school year. Olson said the percentage of Mankato students with consistent attendance will be much better when the 2022 figures are released a year from now.

"We continue to work with families to get students back in school," he said. "... We anticipate we're going to be around 74 (%) for the year that just finished."

While it's natural for people to try to compare schools and school districts by looking at overall scores, Olson said district educators dig into the detailed data to identify where individual students might need additional support. Other district priorities include eliminating racial, ethnic and income disparities in achievement; ensuring a safe and supportive learning environment; and helping students with mental and emotional development.

Westerburg provided some cautionary advice, too, when looking at the data. Smaller districts with low enrollments can see scores swing wildly from year to year even if the quality of the teaching is constant.

"Two or three kids can skew the score dramatically," he said. "The smaller the district gets, the more volatile the scores can be."

And there are strong performances to be found at individual schools, even if the broader district has mixed results. Among other potential nominees for the 2023 academic all-star team, Mankato West High School hit 69% in reading proficiency, Maple River Elementary was just a tad below 70% in science, St. Peter's North Elementary had 71.4% of students who were adept in math and 72.4% of Cleveland Elementary School students demonstrated their reading proficiency.