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National Perspective on MN Test Score Gap

May 13, 2013 By Caroline Hooper, Guest Commentary

Many education reformers seems to believe, and are certainly content to let the public believe that “…we have the worst education outcomes for children of color in the COUNTRY, in particular for Black children,” as one MinnPost reader recently commented. That is untrue. If it were true, it would be damning, but it simply isn’t true. Using recent National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) test scores paint a different picture.

NAEP exams are one of the few tools that can be used to compare students across the country because students take the same tests at the same time. Using state level exams and tests, or even graduation rates do not provide reliable comparisons. States design their own state level exams and the definition of graduation rate differs from one state to the next, indeed from one school district to the next.

According to the most recent NAEP scores, fourth grade Black students in Minnesota outperform the national average for all Black students in both math and science. In reading, Black students in Minnesota score below the national average for all Black students, but by 8th grade that difference virtually disappears.


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Furthermore, 8th grade Black students in Minnesota exceed the national average for all Black students in math and science too. That sure doesn’t seem like the “worst education outcomes for children of color in the COUNTRY, in particular for Black children.” Instead, it seems that Black children in Minnesota generally outperform their counterparts in other states, at least in terms of NAEP scores.


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It is true that the test score gap is larger in Minnesota than the national average test score gap, but consider that white students in Minnesota generally score well above the national average for white students in all but one of the aforementioned areas. Still, this test score gap is a cause for concern and should unite Minnesotans in attempting to address and resolve it. That is difficult to do, however in the current climate where teachers are vilified and insulted, where rah-rah reformers bash teachers and trash schools.

Steve Perry, a Connecticut education reformer, recently came to town as part of a series of speakers connected to the RESET education reform movement campaign. Perry claims some pretty dubious stats from his rather selective magnet school. This leads to questions about computing graduation and dropout rates. I wonder how Steve Perry claims a 100% graduation rate while the fact is that many students “drop-out” of his school.

Measuring and comparing graduation rates is not as straightforward as one might imagine. When does a school begin a cohort—kindergarten, ninth grade, or tenth grade? Maybe later? Do we count kids with disabilities or recent immigrant who may have more time to finish? Do we count kids that transfer schools, withdraw, move? Graduation rates, as reported by individual states, are inconsistent to say the least.

Published in 2013, the Building a Grad Nation report is an in-depth analysis of graduation rates that attempts to control for the fact that states compute graduation rates differently. The Grad Nation report puts Minnesota in the solid center with a graduation rate of nearly 77%. The report does show an unusually large 35 point gap between the graduation rate for White and Black students, yet further on the report concludes that Minnesota is in the top ten of states in reducing the gap between Black and White students from 2003-2010.

It seems to me that while we should all be concerned about making sure that all students recognize the value of their education and achieve at high levels, we need also to have an honest discussion. Black students do not do worse in Minnesota. In fact, Black students do better here (at least according to the NAEP scores) than in most other states.

Instead of seeking to vilify teachers, destroy schools and fracture communities, reformers should get real about the issues and work for solutions instead of scoring political points.

Caroline Hooper is a Minneapolis high school teacher.

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  • Alec says:

    May 14, 2013 at 6:20 am

    Let’s just, for sake of argument, pretend that the market based reformers are correct about Minnesota. They have, basically, a three pronged solution:

    The magic bullet of “choice”: 

    —-Minnesota has had open enrollment for 20+ years! In fact, in St. Paul, up until recently, 89% of students were bused for free to a choice school.

    Result: Greater racial and soci-economic isolation than before. Research has shown that it is not totally poverty that predicts outcomes, but poverty concentration in schools. 20 years of the magic bullet and the problem it was meant to solve got worse!

    The magic bullet of charters:

    —-Again, Minnesota has had charters for 20+ years.

    Result: 80%+ of charters either underperform or are equal to their public counterpart. The ones that “break the odds” tend to suspend and dismiss minorities at alarming rates.

    The magic bullet of dismantling unions and due process job protections:

    —-We have 22 right to work states were this magic bullet is in full effect. If you were a betting person, you should not bet on the education of a state without strong unions.

  • Rosemary says:

    May 14, 2013 at 8:55 am

    Black students do much worse than white students in Minnesota. This article, while mentioning that fact, glosses over it by saying that black students in Minnesota do better than black students in other states and focuses on that instead of talking about the achievement gap. Do we really want to set the bar that low? Instead of excusing ourselves by saying that our problem is no worse than other states, we should be working to eliminate inequity. White students in Minnesota score above the national averages. Black students in Minnesota should do so as well. I expected a better look at this issue from Minnesota 20/20.

  • Jim Smith says:

    May 14, 2013 at 11:53 am

    To justify the achievement gap in Minnesota as a function of our high scoring white students is troublesome on many levels.  Questions should be asked about opportunity disparities, poverty, an educational system that that allows one group to prosper at the expense of others.  Maybe we are just blaming the victim. Clearly other places are closing the gap.  Maybe we should take a closer look at what works rather than to make excuses.

    • Ignatius says:

      August 13, 2013 at 1:29 pm

      I object to your phrasing “at the expense of others” and “blaming the victim.”  Perhaps you really do think there is only a certain amount of success to go around and that we can’t have both smart white kids and smart black kids. I don’t.

      I have at certain point joked that there is a finite amount of intelligence in the world and the population keeps increasing, but never did I seriously believe that it has to be that way.

  • Alec says:

    May 14, 2013 at 2:22 pm

    Once again the reformers miss the point intentionally in order to further a narrative that teachers are terrible. The point was not to say we do not need to close the gap. Of course we need to do that. We work every day to do that.

    The point, is that we need to move forward from truth and an accurate perspective, and that we are not, as Steve Perry so eloquently said, a bunch of cockroaches.

    No one ever even implied we don’t need to close the gap.

  • Jim Smith says:

    May 15, 2013 at 7:35 am

    Educators and politicians have given lip service to closing the gap for thirty years but except for mostly city schools little has been done to address the issue.  A case in point is Eden Prairie where the former superintendent led the charge and lost her job as a result.  There are other examples as well. When the gap is addressed, especially when resources are involved, there is often push back from the current winners in our system.  It becomes a “them against us” issue and little changes.

  • Daniel Sellers says:

    May 15, 2013 at 11:30 am

    Fact: The average 8th grade black students in these states scores BETTER than their peers in Minnesota: Maryland, Florida, Kentucky, Georgia, North Carolina, and Texas (as well as 27 other states).

    Opinion: As a Minnesotan, this is embarrassing, and it calls for urgent action and yes, changing (or reforming) the current public education system.

    It seems to me that Ms. Hooper is suffering from a bad case of white privilege, which makes it challenging for her to view this important data from the lens of an African American parent, who may not be so thrilled with the idea that black students are performing “pretty close to the national average.”

  • Alec says:

    May 15, 2013 at 3:03 pm

    Our equality and achievement gap should be our national shame. There is no arguing that. I would argue it is an equality gap that perpetuates the achievement, but it is shameful none-the-less.

    That being said, all teachers want is a fair debate about what is best for kids, focused on research, data, and actual educational goals. What can we do to close this shameful gap.

    Arguments focused on the human resources office, while politically engaging and profitable, do nothing to help our students. 

    Also, false facts are rampant and not helpful. There are simple, simple tools to compare black achievement from state to state. Please visit the link. For example, Minnesota is not behind 30 other states in black achievement. We are 15th. Certainly we should get better, but how can we even have a discussion if we cannot focus on facts.

    Finally, if you believe in your soul that Edina teachers just happen by chance to be all the good teachers, and St. Paul/Minneapolis teachers just by luck of the draw are all cockroaches, then there is really no debate to be had, and it is no longer about the kids.

    Please do the comparison.,MAT,1,0,within,0,0

  • Briana Chatters says:

    May 16, 2013 at 2:22 pm

    Mr. Sellers hit the nail on the head. These slick, seemingly innocuous, head-in-the-sand-excuses for “those people” are far too common in this society.  All children in Minnesota have the ability to perform at the same level of excellence.  Any group falling below the bar, even if it is “pretty close to the national average”, should be unacceptable to us all.  We need to call out teachers like Ms. Collins who are satisfied with these shameful statistics.

  • Valerie Olsen-Rittler says:

    May 17, 2013 at 4:14 pm

    It seems to me that the author is very interested in addressing disparities in educational outcomes in our communities.  Teachers want genuine solutions for students and very much appreciate real support.  The author is simply pointing out that the claims put forth by reformers deserve a closer examination.