I have often said that when it comes to education, there are no silver bullets. If we truly want to increase student achievement, it must begin in the schools: observing and sharing successful practices, engaging with educators and investing in efforts that are proven to be effective. We have to trust that our teachers and administrators want the best for their students and if given the right tools, they will help every single child excel.
This culture of collaboration has been at the center of our work over the past three years and has led to many important investments and reforms. Together, we have focused on closing achievement gaps and moving forward with our vision where all Minnesota children have access to opportunity.
This month, we saw solid proof that this shift in focus and approach is working.
With the release of the 2013 National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) – often referred to as the Nation’s Report Card – Minnesota fourth grade students outperformed every other state in math. Simply put: our fourth grade students were number one. In addition, we saw the highest scores for both fourth and eighth grade students in math and reading since Minnesota first started being measured by the Nation’s Report Card in the early 1990s.
Minnesota fourth grade students posted the 10th best scores for reading in the nation, up from 22nd in 2011 when the NAEP was last released. Additionally, gaps between white students and African American and Hispanic students have closed by 10 test points—that’s a roughly 25 percent improvement since 2009.
When people talk about Minnesota having some of the worst achievement gaps in the nation, they are looking at NAEP data. This assessment is the one of the most accurate apples-to-apples comparisons there is for how students are doing across the country. With this new data, Minnesota can stand tall and proud: proud knowing that our students performed above the national average in every subject, proud that we outperformed neighboring states where educators continue to be left out of the conversation, and proud that we have finally started to make progress for our kids.
But there is still much work left to do. Minnesota’s eighth grade students didn’t show as much progress. Some of this can be attributed to years of borrowing from schools, deep cuts, and large class sizes. Despite those challenges, our eighth grade students are still above the national average, but we cannot rest until they too are achieving at the highest level.
This means that now is the time to maximize on the growth we are seeing for our fourth grade students. Now is the time to continue pushing forward.
The success we are seeing with our fourth grade students came from a strong focus and belief in investing early and ensuring all kids have a promising start. From our $45 million dollar Race to the Top grant, to the “Read Well by Third Grade” law, to our partnership with The Minnesota Reading Corps, we worked as a state to lay a strong foundation. And this year, Governor Mark Dayton and the Legislature showed bold leadership by making important investments in Pre-K, full-day kindergarten and special education funding. Not to mention paying back the state’s longstanding I.O.U. to our schools, also known as the school payment shift.
These are investments that should be applauded and will be critical in our efforts moving forward. But additional investments and reforms are needed.
If we want to see continued gap closure in two years when the next Nation’s Report Card is released—if we want to see increased achievement for all students—we must use this moment to maximize on the growth we are seeing and continue to push ahead.
Brenda Cassellius is commissioner of the Minnesota Department of Education.