By Melissa Priebe
Local schools came out ahead of the state in most subject areas, when the Minnesota Department of Education released MCA test scores.
Although reading proficiency as measured by the MCA tests dropped nearly 10 percent from 2015 to 2016 at Watertown-Mayer High School, the district came out ahead of statewide scores in every other subject at the elementary, middle school and high school levels.
For the state of Minnesota, test scores showed that 58.9 percent of 10th grade students were proficient in reading, 47.1 percent of 11th grade students were proficient in math, and 55.5 percent of students were proficient in high school science.
At Watertown-Mayer High School, 52 percent of 10th grade students were proficient in reading – less than the statewide figure – and only 49.1 percent of 11th grade students were proficient in math in 2016.
In the best subject for the school district, 64.5 percent of students achieved proficiency in high school science this year. However, science tests, which are given in fifth grade, eighth grade and once in high school, are not currently factored in to state or federal accountability guidelines.
“Our scores were down a little bit, which is obviously disappointing because we want to do the best we can every year. We always want to do better,” said Principal Bob Hennen. “It’s a little deceiving, because there were a lot of kids that were just 1 or 2 points from passing.”
In every subject except for science, Watertown-Mayer High School lost ground on the MCA tests this year. The proficiency rates in high school reading dropped more than 10 percent from 2015, when 62.5 percent of students were proficient. In math, the proficiency rates dropped from 54.6 percent of students proficient in 2015 to 49.1 percent of students proficient in 2016. Though science proficiency levels saw an uptick of more than 16 percentage points, climbing from 48.2 percent of students proficient in 2015 to 64.5 percent proficient in 2016.
The numbers, which are not far off from high school proficiency rates statewide, are a cause for concern.
“It is disappointing to see the slow pace of progress,” said Education Commissioner Brenda Cassellius. “But those of us who do this work every day remain undeterred in our goal, which is to guarantee an excellent and equitable education for every Minnesota student.”
According to the Minnesota Department of Education, a closer look at the high school results show a steep increase in the number of parents opting out of taking the state tests. This year, 2,227 11th graders were opted out of taking the MCA math test, up from 19 students that were opted out three years ago. In reading, 1,404 students were opted out of the MCA test this year, compared to just 11 students in 2013. While the opt out numbers showed a significant increase last year, the students who were opted out did not number in the thousands.
“We want to look at the whole picture,” said Hennen. While the MCA tests provide some information on student performance, they only measure performance in key subjects at one given point in time. Hennen said other things the school will be looking at include ACT scores, which will show the college readiness of students who take the tests, and performance in areas that aren’t on the MCAs. “We have more kids taking college in school classes and industrial classes than ever before. With the college classes, students have to take an entrance test to be able to do that.”
For Watertown-Mayer Elementary School, 73.4 percent students tested proficient in reading in 2016, above the statewide figure of 59.7 percent. In math, 78.4 percent of students were proficient, above the percentage of 59.5 percent of students statewide. Locally, 65.9 percent of fifth grade students were proficient in science, close to the figure of 61.6 percent statewide. The elementary school saw improvement in student proficiency marks across the board, but it is the only school in the district that achieved this. Reading proficiency levels are up from 68.9 percent in 2015, and math proficiency is up a little more than 1 percentage point, from 77.2 percent in 2015. Science proficiency levels also saw gains, moving from 64.3 percent proficient last year to 65.9 percent.
At Watertown-Mayer Middle School, 72.7 percent of students were proficient in reading in 2016, compared to 59.7 percent statewide. Middle school students also achieved a math proficiency level more than 24 percentage points higher than the statewide measure, with 84 percent of local students proficient in math, compared to the statewide figure of 59.4 percent, In science, 55 percent of eighth grade students were proficient.
Educators are quick to point out that the MCA tests only show student performance at one point in time, and many factors can affect a student’s performance on test day. If the MCAs are any indication of student performance, though, they show the highest proficiency levels for reading taking place at Watertown-Mayer Elementary School and the highest proficiency levels for math taking place at Watertown-Mayer Middle School.
“The record number of students opting out of tests this year reflects the growing sentiment by teachers, parents and students that one single test is not an effective measure of student knowledge,” said Cassellius.
While more and more students are opting out, schools only have a method for reporting formal opt-outs from parents. This doesn’t include student absences or refusals to take the test, which will be counted starting next year.
In September, the Department of Education plans to release the Multiple Measurements Ratings (MMR), which are meant to give a more comprehensive look at the performance of any given school. The measure takes into account factors like student testing ability over time, reductions in the achievement gap and high school graduation rates.
The new Every Student Succeeds Act, which replaced the No Child Left Behind law, requires public schools in Minnesota to continue measuring student performance with standardized tests.
“The MCA scores are just one piece of the puzzle,” said Hennen.
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