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March Mania

OUR OPINION: N.D.'s reading scores need work

In her op-ed on this page, Minnesota's education commissioner exaggerates a bit when she describes this year's test scores. More about that in a minute.

But in general, Brenda Cassellius has reason to be proud of Minnesota students' overall results. That's because not only is the state performing well against national averages, but also "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," she writes.

In other words, the scores are going in the right direction: up.

Now, what's the situation in North Dakota?

North Dakota's students also did reasonably well on "the Nation's' Report Card," as the National Assessment of Educational Progress is known.

But the students trailed their counterparts in Minnesota on a few key indicators, notably the ones that measure reading performance. Moreover, the scores have been flat for a number of years, even as students in several other states have advanced.

In a press release, North Dakota State Superintendent Kirsten Baesler put the best gloss on the results that she could: "North Dakota student scores have stayed fairly level over time, and they compare favorably with national results," she said.

But "comparing favorably" means beating the national average only marginally in reading. The assessment deems this result "not significantly different from the nation at either grade (4 or 8)," when it comes to the key metric of what percentage of students scored at or above the "proficient" level.

Minnesota, in contrast, is one of 15 states with higher percentages of students scoring at or above "proficient" than the national average.

As for math, both North Dakota and Minnesota have higher-than-average percentages of students scoring at or above "proficient" in both grades. Again, Minnesota's math scores in both grades rank it among the top three states, while North Dakota fourth-graders ranked fourth and eighth graders ranked sixth.

All of which suggests that North Dakota could get a lot of bang for its buck by redoubling its focus on K-12 reading. That's the area where other states have made the biggest strides, as well as where a dedicated effort by educators, parents and students alike could put the state back where boosters want it to be: at the top -- not in the middle -- of the national charts.

Now, a quick note about Cassellius and those math scores:

"Simply put: Our fourth grade students were No. 1," she writes.

Well ... yes and no. Minnesota fourth-graders' average score in math is, in fact, the best in the nation: 253, compared with the national average of 241. (North Dakota fourth-graders' average score was 246.)

But the fourth graders in two other states, Massachusetts and New Hampshire, also scored the same average of 253 as Minnesotans.

There are marginal differences between the percentages of fourth-graders in the three states scoring "proficient" or "advanced," the highest category. And while those differences seem statistically insignificant, they're probably where Cassellius gets the evidence for her claim.

Still, the fact that Minnesota has now at the very least tied with Massachusetts -- the national leader for the past 10 years -- is significant. It's worth boasting about, and worth working hard to catch up with the Bay State in the NAEP's other categories, too.

-- Tom Dennis for the Herald

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