Friday, November 28, 2014

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Eighth grade test results improve and achievement gaps narrow
Minnesota eighth grade test scores have climbed this year in both reading and math. The overall passing rate for the 2005 Basic Skills Test in reading reached an all time high. State education officials say the reading results also show continued progress in narrowing of the achievement gaps between white and non-white students.

St. Paul, Minn. — Nearly 64,000 eighth grade students took the state Basic Skills Tests in February. Results from the Minnesota Department of Education show 85 percent passed the reading exam, up from 81 percent last year. It's the first increase in reading in three years and the highest mark since the tests became a statewide requirement in 1998. The passing rate for this year's math test was 74 percent, up from 71 percent last year. The high point of 75 percent was reached in 2002. Tim Vansickle, the department's director of assessments and testing, described the gains as "fairly impressive." He also cautioned this might be as good as it gets.

"To be honest, the BST -- a basic skills test like we've developed -- it's been in place for a while," Vansickle said. "That means there's not a lot ceiling, is what we call in in psychometrics. There's not a lot of room for kids to show much more growth than we've probably have seen in terms of average test scores."

But Vansickle said the passing rates for specific groups of students can continue to climb. Reading results over the last two years show minority students have slowly moved closer to their white peers. This year's gap was 14 percentage points for Asian students, 23 points for American Indians, 27 points for Hispanics and 34 points for African Americans. The wider math achievement gaps remained about the same as in 2004.

"This is our seventh year of BSTs, so I think some of things that school districts are doing are probably paying off," Vansickle said.

There's not a lot of room for kids to show much more growth than we've probably have seen in terms of average test scores.
- Tim Vansickle, Minnesota Department of Education

Vansickle noted sizeable gains this year in Minneapolis and St. Paul. The state's largest, urban school districts have traditionally struggled with the tests largely due to high student mobility and concentrated poverty. The passing rate for Minneapolis was 64 percent in reading, up from 52 percent last year. In math, 48 percent passed compared to 41 percent in 2004.

In St. Paul, the passing rate jumped from 58 to 65 percent in reading, while math went from 43 to 48 percent. Superintendent Pat Harvey was particularly pleased with the double digits gains made by students learning to speak English.

"We know that if the kids use their effort, and we make sure that they are doing high quality work and taking increasingly more difficult work, then their achievement will soar," Harvey said.

The Basic Skills Tests ensure Minnesota students graduate from high school with minimum competency in reading, math and writing. The reading and math exams are given for the first time in eighth grade. The writing test comes in 10th grade. Students get multiple opportunities to pass before their graduation.

The eighth grade tests could disappear by next year. Tim Vansickle said state lawmakers are considering a plan to shift the emphasis to another statewide exam, known as the Minnesota Comprehensive Assessment (MCA).

"The eighth grade MCAs are going to be more rigorous than than the BST," Vansickle said. "This test becomes obsolete. It doesn't give us much in terms of how students are progressing, or what they can do."

State education officials also released results from this year's 10th grade writing test. The statewide passing rate of 91 percent was unchanged from 2004.

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