Wealthy suburbs lead the pack on standardized test scores, data show

By: - September 5, 2023 6:01 am

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Minnesota students’ state test scores still haven’t rebounded to pre-pandemic levels, according the latest data from the state. It’s a reflection of the learning losses that happened during the COVID-19 pandemic, when schools shut down in the hopes of preventing the spread of the disease.

Mapping the 2023 Minnesota Comprehensive Assessment results reveals considerable geographic variation in students’ performance. The below map of math proficiency, for instance, shows that the highest-performing schools tend to be clustered in the Western suburbs of the Twin Cities.

In school districts like Minnetonka, Wayzata and Edina, more than 70% of students at all grades tested are considered proficient in math, which means they meet or exceed grade-level standards.

Conversely, many of the lowest-scoring districts serve large populations of Indigenous students. At Cass Lake and Mahnomen school districts in the north-central region of the state, just 15% of test-takers are meeting state standards. The Red Lake school district on the Red Lake Reservation has the lowest scores: There, only 2% of students met state math standards in 2023.

The overall geographic distribution is similar for reading scores. Generally speaking the scores line up with income: students in wealthy areas with better-funded schools tend to do better on state assessments. Those in poorer areas, whether in the urban core of the Twin Cities or the state’s more impoverished rural communities, tend to fare poorer.

These maps don’t, however, show variation among individual schools within a single district, nor do they differentiate between test-takers in different grades. In some districts there is considerable variation in achievement between schools, grade levels and subjects. Private and charter schools are also excluded from these numbers.

A 2017 report from the Legislative Auditor’s office found that administering these tests is expensive and time-consuming for schools, and that many educators and administrators aren’t sure how best to interpret the test results and use them to identify areas for improvement. The report also found considerable disagreement among educators on the usefulness of the tests.

Overall less than half of Minnesota students are meeting state grade levels for reading and math. But zooming out to the national level, Minnesota students are doing fairly well. A separate series of standardized tests administered nationally shows that relative to other states, Minnesota students are considerably above average in math and have average scores in reading.

You can see how your own school district is faring using the Department of Education’s online report card.

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Christopher Ingraham
Christopher Ingraham

Christopher Ingraham covers greater Minnesota and reports on data-driven stories across the state. He's the author of the book "If You Lived Here You'd Be Home By Now," about his family's journey from the Baltimore suburbs to rural northwest Minnesota. He was previously a data reporter for the Washington Post.