We had a reading problem yesterday; It’s not better today

Yesterday we knew Minneapolis-Saint Paul had a major challenge with reading.

Today we know it isn’t getting much better.  That should send a strong signal that we all have to do more and that needs to be mixed with some fundamental questioning of the status quo.

Today’s news comes with the release of annual state test scores (NOTE: See description below), which, overall, were flat across the state and in public schools in Minneapolis and Saint Paul. Most disappointing is that proficiency in reading in 3rd grade; a key goal of Generation Next and most in the field. was down in both cities (Minneapolis: 40% in 2014 to 39% in 2015;  Saint Paul: 39% in 2014 to 36% in 2015).

This news comes on top of analysis Generation Next has been doing about literacy, which illustrates the issue is more serious than the percentages show.  Not only are nearly 13,600 students in grades 3-5 in public schools in Minneapolis and Saint Paul below grade-level in reading (out of about 23,000), the vast majority of the students are well below grade-level. In fact, 40% of all public school students in grades 3-5 in Minneapolis and Saint Paul who took the assessment scored in the lowest category, which we call the “red zone.”  There are significant racial gaps, especially between white students and American Indian students (47 percentage points) and white students and black students (45 percentage points).  Our analysis has also led us to look differently at our goal of targeting reading by Grade 3.  It is still true that this is a critical time for youth because after Grade 3 almost all learning is based on reading; However our analysis says there are so many students not proficient after Grade 3 (more than 54,000 in the two cities in 2015) that we also need more interventions in Grades 4, 5 and beyond. This rethinking may also need to be reflected in philanthropic funding in literacy interventions, which almost exclusively focuses on students before 4th grade.

It is sobering to know how hard so many people are working to help our kids and see we aren’t making the progress we need. It is also important to look into details to see how we identify what is working, and bring it to scale and replicate it quickly. That is not a simple thing to do, but it is absolutely essential.

Bright Spots

Here are some of the bright spots we are going to study in Minneapolis: 13 schools had more than a 3% increase in reading scores, 7 schools had more than a 3 percentage point increase and two-thirds of priority schools (those that have had the lowest scores over the past few years) saw gains in reading and math.

A specific example of one of these bright spots is Lucy Laney in north Minneapolis.  Last year only 29 students in Grades 3-8 were proficient. Test scores released today show a very significant 24% increase in the number of students proficient. This change took place while the school instituted a co-teaching model that helped put a reading specialist in the classroom.   Across town there was a 2 percentage point increase in proficiency in reading at Lyndale, which also instituted a co-teaching model with a reading specialist. One area we will explore is the effectiveness and scalability of having a second education professional in the classroom that supports the lead teacher and is focused on literacy.

Another example that we will be looking at more is Saint Paul’s Obama Elementary, where reading proficiency increased more than 5 percentage points from last year.

Though it’s hard to compare small schools to large schools, Friendship Academy in south Minneapolis has also shown significant growth in reading. In 2013, 32% of its students were proficient, in 2014, 57% were proficient and this year 83% were proficient.  Nell Collier, Executive Director of Friendship, said a major factor in the growth was a strong alignment between the teachers, school leaders and the reading standards.  Teachers prepare lessons two weeks in advance, they are reviewed by the chief academic officer to make sure they align with the standards and then adjustments are made to individual learning styles for individual students.  “We make sure the teachers know the standards and we stay to the plan.  If I decide to go to Chicago and don’t use a map, I may get there but it will take a lot longer than if I used the map to get me where I’m going. That’s how we look at our plans for reading,” Collier told us.

We are also going to use today’s results to learn from places where we didn’t see progress.  The Harvest Network of Schools has traditionally been a bright spot, and still remains near the top, but saw a dip in some scores in this round.  Eric Mahmoud, Harvest’s co-founder, has been working with a team inside, and outside, the schools to understand why, and make adjustments.  One interesting point he raised in our discussion is that the drop in results comes in the year after they lost funding for their summer enrichment program, which may significantly increase summer reading loss for students. If this ends up being a factor, it could help influence how aggressively Generation Next, and others, focus on increased summer programming next year to prevent the “summer slide.”

For additional context on today’s results, read this excellent piece by MinnPost’s Beth Hawkins: Inside the test scores: Two stories about Lucy Laney School, both true.

What is Generation Next doing about this?

The most important work we can do is to continue to partner with the Minneapolis and Saint Paul school districts, and other schools, to find what works and help them bring it to scale.   The core of the solutions have to start in the schools; while there are many outside partners who can be involved, the number of students below grade level is so large that we cannot make a significant dent without a major change in the core system.

This isn’t news to our partners in the schools. Anyone who doesn’t believe school leaders and teachers understand we have a problem doesn’t see what we see when working with them every day.  Our schools have plenty of committed people, and, while the results aren’t where we or they want them to be, there are pockets of success.  The challenge is to grow these individual successes—successful classroom to successful school, successful schools to successful districts.  To help make that happen we will continue to analyze data, research practices that are working elsewhere, help break down any barriers preventing progress and align our philanthropic partners when a new investment can make a measurable change.

Generation Next is also bringing other resources to the table, and improving those that are already there:

  • For more than a year Generation Next has been working with the top literacy organizations in our region.  The idea is to have the leading groups helping kids share what they know with each other, and help each other make even more progress.  The first step was for them to agree to a set of guiding principles that help them, and others, understand what our best minds and most effective practitioners agree will help close the achievement gap. Now, with our partners at the Saint Paul Public Schools Foundation Tutoring Partnership, we are deepening this work by helping all of the organizations in our network implement research-based assessments to measure student progress and improve organizational practices.
  • Thousands of people in our region read to kids in our schools but, sadly, not enough of these well-intentioned efforts are leading to results.  That’s not good enough; The Number One Volunteer City in the country should not have the Number One Achievement Gap in the country.  We believe we have significant capability to improve the effectiveness of volunteers and you will be hearing more about this in a few weeks as we announce a new effort to help recruit volunteers to reading programs with proven results.
  • Our generous community continues to step up to help and when we announce the volunteer effort we will also be announcing a new gift of books to help effective reading tutors.

We had a problem yesterday.  Today’s announcement makes it clear our problem has not gone away.  The results we see today, even with the bright spots, were disappointing when we know how far we have to go.  We have to disrupt the status quo.

Some background on The Minnesota Comprehensive Assessments (MCAs) released today:

  • The MCAs are federally mandated tests on Reading, Math, and Science.  Math and Reading tests are given each year in Grades 3-8, and once each in high school. Science tests are given in Grades 5-8, and once in high school. It is important to understand what these tests do and do not do. The exam is given toward the end of the school year to measure year-to-year progress. It is not designed for progress monitoring. 
  • The MCA’s are directly tied to Minnesota academic standards. Statewide standards provide direction to districts and schools on what students should know in specific subjects and grades. The MCA serves as a tool to measure the extent to which students are meeting the standards.
  • Standards and tests sometimes change. Both the Math and Reading MCA tests have gone through multiple iterations. This is the fourth year of the current Math MCA and the third for the Reading MCA. Due to these changes it is not advisable to compare data from years before the change to years after the change. For example, in 2012 a new reading test was administered which resulted in drops across the state. It would be inaccurate to read the drop from 2011 to 2012 as a decline in reading proficiency because the two tests were different.
  • When discussing test data, the term “proficient” is used to refer to a student who is at grade level. However, students do not pass or fail MCA tests, instead they are placed in four categories based on the score they receive: “Does Not Meet the Standards”, “Partially Meets the Standards”, “Meets the Standards” and “Exceeds the Standards”. Students who score in the bottom two categories of “do not meet” or “partially meets the standards” are not considered to be proficient or at grade level. This distinction is important because two districts or schools that have 60% proficiency may have very different composition within the four categories and therefore may face different challenges. 

Generation Next is supportive of these annual tests because it allows us to identify bright spot schools and target support where it is needed. For more information on Generation Next’s point of view on testing see our blog on the importance of testing.

R.T. Rybak, Executive Director and Jonathan May, Director of Data & Research

SIF 2015