September 5, 2019

Excluded and Exaggerated Data Hides the Real State of Our Students

By Krista Kaput

Each year, around the start of the school year, the Minnesota Department of Education provides an update on student achievement through the release of MCA test scores. This year, MDE released the scores as part of a new report: The State of Our Students. While the report covers a wide range of data points, from attendance to discipline to high school graduation rates alongside reading and math proficiency, it focuses more on spinning a positive narrative than on providing Minnesotans with a clear picture of what’s happening in our schools. Despite lots of numbers, the report skips over key data, fails to give readers clear benchmarks, and generally misses the mark on the level of transparency we need from our state agencies. 

In the report, Commissioner Ricker writes, “When we condense our students down to one single data point, we overlook so much of who they are … By looking at a more accurate picture of our students, I invite us all to find ways to best serve every student together.” I agree that more measures help create a more comprehensive picture. However, it is problematic that the report glossed over the state’s persistent achievement gaps and stagnant test scores, thereby ignoring Minnesota’s educational equity issues. The report also does little to help readers make sense of the data—in some cases exaggerating the numbers, and in others burying key takeaways, like the fact that students of color and students with special needs are still disciplined at disproportionately higher rates than white students

Hyperbolic Data; Skewed Conclusions 

The report makes a special point of highlighting AP and ACT achievement and includes a couple of celebratory statistics for each student group. Ultimately though, the data points are exaggerated, pointing the reader to superficial effects rather than actual impact on student achievement. 

For example, the report highlights that, in 2018, Native American students received a 3 or higher on 50% of the AP exams they took. The report fails to mention that this amounts to just 78 of the state’s 49,903 AP scores meeting the 3-or-higher benchmark. That’s it. But to find this out, there are no tables, spreadsheets, or appendices the reader can reference. Rather, they would have to dig up answers themselves on the labyrinthine MDE website. (That said, we’ve compiled the AP Exam data for you here.)

The report also highlights that between 2016 and 2018, AP exam participation for black students increased by 29%—the highest jump for any student group. Despite this increase, black students still accounted for just 4% of AP tests administered. But again, this can’t be found anywhere in the report.

In fact, the report completely excludes details about the ongoing disparities in AP access and success. For the Class of 2018, 19% of black, 14% of Native American, and 18% of Latinx students participated in AP courses, as compared to 34% of white students. We should also note that 38% of Asian students took AP courses, but the disparity among Asian communities requires the state to further disaggregate the data to show a better picture of how our education system is serving all students.

If we are going to address these gaps, we need to face them. That doesn’t mean we can’t celebrate our wins, but it does our students a huge disservice to obscure the facts.

Are We Holding High Expectations?

The report also sends mixed messages on college and career readiness. First, it touts the increase in Native American, black, and Latinx students who have taken the ACT—while failing to mention that their scores have declined and are several points below white students. 

Moreover, these snapshots fail to get at the real question of how well we’re preparing students for college and career. The report highlights across-the-board increases in graduation rates, but when coupled with the full ACT data and a troubling decline in MCA reading and math scoresthe only assessment of whether students are mastering our state’s standardswe need to ask whether kids are really more ready or if we have lowered standards.

Celebrate Success, But Start With Honest Data

Let me be clear. It is important to celebrate the successes of our students, teachers, and schools. As a former public school teacher, I know teaching is challenging, exhausting, and daunting while simultaneously being incredibly rewarding and fulfilling. 

However, as a white person who taught primarily students of color, I also know that in order to advance educational equity and raise student achievement, we must have honest and open conversations about our shortcomings. We must listen to the concerns and recommendations from our students and their families, and then work with them to remove barriers. 

This cannot happen if the information we are given is exaggerated and excludes critical components about the real state of our students.