Many baby boomers fondly recall their small-town school educations. Monday’s release of the Minnesota Comprehensive Assessment scores generated a host of conflicting comments on the quality of today’s educational experience. Tuesday’s “Star Tribune” headline declared reading scores had plummeted. Education Commissioner Brenda Cassellius cautioned Minnesota’s ACT scores were the nation’s best for the eighth year in a row and people should look at the MCA results “for what they are—a snapshot in time” that allows state educators “to focus [their] efforts.”
What’s clear is that the performance gap between Caucasians and minorities remains unchanged. Most groups in the Twin Cities improved their performance over last year’s, but gains in mathematics proficiency were offset by drops in reading scores that were 19% below the state-wide average. Some charter schools and schools with huge majorities of impoverished students scored well, but many performed below average in both categories.
Denise Specht, president of Education Minnesota, attributed some of the outcome to excessive snow days and computer glitches. Another factor was unfamiliarity with the new standards. A third consideration is the disparity among schools in the number of students taking the tests. The MCA statistics show half the students in South and Southwest Senior Highs in Minneapolis—approximately 200—were proficient in math. At Roosevelt High, a similar-sized school, 11% (15 students) achieved proficiency. Including the other 89% (130 students) who did not puts the total number of Roosevelt test participants well below those of comparable schools in the district.
Such anomalies were not limited to the inner-city. Outstate districts such as Farmington, Elk River, Adams, and Hermantown witnessed underachievement at one or more of their schools. Traditional small-town virtues of community familiarity and continuity do not guarantee classroom or test-taking success.
Common to urban and rural communities is their increasing ethnic diversity. Two recent reports comparing performance on international tests show American students perform worse than their peers because test takers from the lowest social class were over-represented in the sample. Once this factor is accounted for, American student performances improve substantially. “Disadvantaged and lower-middle-class U.S. students perform better (and in most cases, substantially better) than comparable students in similar post-industrial countries, [particularly] in reading.”
Rectifying Minnesota’s disparities goes beyond parents simply talking to their children’s teachers. Experts Dr. Mona Mourshed and Fenton Whelan offer these recommendations:
- Get students into school early
- Insist students spend more of their free time in school
- Provide students well-trained teachers
- Provide students individualized attention and tutoring
Boomers may yearn for the small-town school experience, but today’s diversified society requires systematic efforts to guarantee today’s students are tomorrow’s successful adults.