Schools around the Forest Lake area typically performed higher than state averages during the 2018-2019 school year, according to recently-released results from the Minnesota Comprehensive Assessments. The MCAs are given annually each spring to third through eighth graders in the subjects of math, science and reading. In high school, reading testing is given during a student’s sophomore year, math testing is given during a student’s junior year, and science is given in the grade a student takes biology, which can vary from school to school. Students’ test scores are placed into four categories: does not meet expectations, partially meets expectations, meets expectations, and exceeds expectations. Those who meet or exceed expectations are considered proficient. Local school leaders said the MCAs are a snapshot of a student’s learning at the particular time they take the assessment and are not indicative of the whole of a student’s learning. However, each administrator who talked to The Times said the results are an important tool in analyzing teaching and student learning.
As has been the case for the last five years, students in Forest Lake Area Schools continued to outperform the state average in science scores, which sit at 50.4% proficient this year. This year, 58.1% of FLAS students tested were considered proficient. However, that signifies a 7% decrease from the 65.6% proficiency the district scored two years ago (statewide science proficiency scores have dropped 3.4% during that same period). FLAS Superintendent Steve Massey attributes that drop to the cutting of resources due to budget constraints.
“The curriculum review and development process, and the hiring of instructional coaches to support learning, are going to be really critical. I don’t want to over-emphasize the impact of budget cuts, but larger class sizes and a reduction of the supports around learning, which is where we made cuts, … [have] a profound impact on learning. So with the successful [per pupil levy increase] referendum, we’ve reinvested in those supports around learning, which are really critical,” Massey said. As for the consistently higher percentages of proficiency in science, Massey said those results are due to addressing standards and helping re-teach students who need more learning.
“Because there’s specific content standards, there’s work there to teach and asses around the standards, and when kids don’t master that standard, they bring students back into the learning around that standard. … There’s a real tight process around the learning, the assessment, and the accountability around that learning,” he explained.
Lakes International Language Academy students also out-performed the state average by over 5 percentage points, coming in at 55.4%. This is the first year the school had listed science assessment scores for high school students.
“We’re thrilled with the improvement in score,” LILA Interum Executive Director Shannon Peterson said, adding that the school is being careful about how future high school years will go. “Our numbers are so small at that grade, so we’ll have to keep a close watch on what we’re doing in terms of state standards and test prep in the upper grades because the numbers are so small and not large enough to be truly representative in what we’ll be doing in future years.”
Last year, both LILA and North Lakes Academy fell under the state science proficiency average of 51.7%, of students proficient, coming in at 48% and 47.6%, respectively. North Lakes Academy high school students did not take the science portion of the MCA exam last year because of a change in curriculum. High school students typically take the science portion of the exam after taking biology, and NLA shifted that course requirement from a student’s sophomore year to junior year, so last year there were no students who took biology.
NLA improved to 55.8% this year, a jump of over 8% in one year, which NLA Executive Director Cam Stottler said was due to that course shift.
Students in the FLAS improved in reading, while the state average of students seems to have plateaued around 59 to 60%. During the last school year, 60.8% of students tested in the FLAS were proficient. This is an increase not just in proficiency percentages, but the first time in a few years students at the district had a higher proficiency percentage than the state average. The FLASD had a proficiency percentage of 58.3% in 2017-2018 and 59.8% in 2016-2017, compared to the state averages of 59.8% and 60.1%, respectively.
Last year, the district invested in two literacy coaches and also made changes in grades K-2 in going back towards a phonics model in literacy learning, Massey said.
“I attribute that to the support and the work we’re doing in the early grades around literacy. Third grade results showed some nice gains last year. I think all of that has an impact,” he said.
While FLAS gained ground, so did LILA, as 65.1% of its students were proficient, compared to 62.1% 2018, and 61.7% in 2017. Peterson said LILA is following the national trend of K-2 students in language immersion environments having lower reading proficiency during early years of literacy learning, given that students are learning multiple languages. She said the same trend also shows that students catch up by or in the third grade, and then surpass their monolingual peers in literacy -- another area where Peterson said LILA is following the trend.
North Lakes Academy came within two percentage points of the state average, with 58.9% of its students proficient in reading. This was a decrease of 2.4% from the year prior, and over 10% from 2017. Stottler said the upper school reading average has roughly stayed the same. NLA has had a significant increase in the middle school’s growth of student population with special education needs. Stottler added that growth numbers, which can track specific students and classes as a whole, have shown improvement.
Math is the area of greatest MCA proficiency decrease state-wide, with 54.9% of students tested deemed as proficient compared to 58.6% in 2017. The downward trend held true for both students at FLAS and LILA, though both schools still are ahead of the state average at 60% and 58.3%, respectively.
“We need tight coherent systems to how we teach math,” Massey said. “It’s hard to do that when you cut the supports around teaching and learning, but thanks to the referendum, we have those supports now, so we’re again hoping to see better results. I’m expecting that. … We’re going to look at our results independent of where the state’s at and see achievement go higher and not drop even if the state has dropped.”
In 2017, 64.8% of students tested as proficient in math at FLAS, while 59.9% were deemed proficient at LILA. LILA did have a jump to 65.3% in 2018 and fell exactly 7% this year. Peterson said the school recognized that sixth grade was consistently performing at a lower level, which administrators attributed to a teacher who “wasn’t a good fit” for that classroom. That teacher is no longer working at LILA, and now the sixth grade class has two different teachers, one for special education and one for general education.
This year, just 47.6% of students at NLA were deemed proficient in math, 7.2% below. This was an improvement from 40.6% in 2018, but still fell short of the school’s 54% result in 2017, the last year NLA exceeded the state average in this category.“Math has long been the subject area we’ve shown the lowest scores in, but we’ve also shown a significant increase [there], particularly at the upper school. At the high school level, three years ago we were at 22%, and now we’re at 46-48%,” Stottler said. Including social and emotional curriculum has helped boost scores, he added. “[It] focuses on the whole learner on the academic mindset with the students. … Math is a discipline area that it’s common to hear students and parents say, ‘I was never any good at math,’ so there’s a mindset that has to change and evolve.”
Stottler noted the growth numbers indicating individual student growth and class growth as a whole has shown that students are improving.
“Our growth data has always been something we’ve been proud of and something we’ve been seeing consistently. The students are growing consistently, but they just haven’t reached that proficiency level,” Stottler said.
Both executive directors and Massey emphasized that the MCAs are a snapshot of a student’s learning rather than a comprehensive picture.
“They’re important exams and we take them seriously. But it’s a measure at a point in time, and there’s so much more going on with learning,” Massey said. “We have to be careful drawing too many conclusions from MCAs, because a lot of measures make up student learning.”
Stottler had similar sentiments and stressed the importance of looking for growth outside of proficiency percentages.
“The MCA score might not signify the way we want it to yet, but we’re still proud of the work our students are doing,” he remarked.
Peterson said she wished standardized tests would also measure other important schooling factors, like a student’s desire to learn, caring and empathy, and social and emotional learning.
“The academics are very important. That’s, in one sense, the reason kids go to school, but they’re learning so much more than the basic skills in reading, science and math,” she said.