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More schools miss federal benchmark

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ST. PAUL - Small schools in rural Minnesota fared best in the latest round of federal education assessments, but even they are part of a statewide trend of fewer schools meeting the standards.

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Nearly 60 percent of schools in greater Minnesota made adequate yearly progress under the federal No Child Left Behind law. In the seven-county Twin Cities area, 40 percent of schools met the requirements for 2008, according to new Minnesota Department of Education data.

Statewide, just over half of schools posted sufficient gains. While 983 schools reported adequate progress in student math and reading achievement during the 2007-08 academic year, 937 schools failed to meet the benchmarks.

Education Commissioner Alice Seagren said Tuesday that Minnesota students "kind of held steady or slightly improved" in math and reading achievement over the past year, but in many cases did not make enough improvement to meet the rising federal benchmarks.

Under No Child Left Behind, all students must be proficient in math and reading by 2014.

Minnesota is not trending in that direction. The number of schools meeting adequately yearly progress has declined for the past three years.

"And there will be more every year," Lee Warne of the Minnesota Rural Education Association said of schools missing the requirements. "At some point in time everybody's going to (miss) it."

It is not realistic to think schools can meet rising student achievement expectations year after year, he added.

Education Department statistics show a greater percentage of schools in rural areas met the standards than did schools in Minneapolis, St. Paul and the surrounding Twin Cities area.

Several factors may explain that, Seagren and others said. Demographic differences are a key reason for the disparity. Schools with a certain number of minority, poor or immigrant students or students who have special education needs must meet more benchmarks.

If even one of those groups fails to make adequate progress, the entire school is listed as not meeting the standard. That was the case for 426 schools of the 937 in Minnesota that did not meet the federal standard this year, Seagren said.

"You have many school districts that are doing just fine," she said.

Schools can be flagged for not meeting adequate yearly progress if not enough students show required gains in math and reading comprehension. Additionally, high schools must meet graduation requirements while elementary schools and junior high schools face attendance requirements.

Schools with fewer than 500 students in greater Minnesota posted the highest rate of AYP compliance - about 66 percent. Those schools tend to have smaller classes that are better for learning, Warne said.

"I don't think it's any secret among educators that if you can have a lower student-to-educator ratio, you can have better results," said Warne, the rural association's executive director.

Seagren said the state is taking several steps to help boost student achievement, including improving teacher development and creating math and science academies where teachers learn new instructional techniques.

The controversial No Child Left Behind is due for reauthorization, but Congress has not acted on it. There is a growing consensus the legislation needs changes, and some policymakers believe it should be scrapped altogether.

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The state's mixed results under No Child Left Behind do not get the same attention from Minnesotans as they did after the law's 2002 passage, said state Sen. LeRoy Stumpf, DFL-Plummer.

"I think it has quite a bit less meaning," said Stumpf, a top lawmaker on education whose northwestern Minnesota legislative district includes small schools. "But for those districts that are actually not meeting (adequate yearly progress), it does have a real sense of reality."

The new data is on the Minnesota Department of Education's Web site and will be available at the State Fair, which begins later this month. School districts also have been given the information, Seagren said.

Seagren said parents first should focus on their own child's educational progress before reading too much into a school's status on the annual report.

"People who are actively involved with their kids will know the answer to that," Warne added.

On the Web: www.education.state.mn.us

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