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Good news in the fight to close Minnesota's achievement gap?

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For years, Minnesota education officials have grappled with a vexing achievement gap problem, as many minority students lagged behind their white peers in academic progress.

Now there's a glimmer of hope in the long, frustrating effort to close that gap, state officials say. New data suggest that a majority of the state's school districts are on track to cut the achievement gap in half by 2017, state education officials say.

“For the first time, we have concrete goals around gaps, and are letting our school leaders know exactly how far they need to go to be fully on track to close these gaps,” Education Commissioner Brenda Cassellius said. “When you look at the numbers, you begin to realize not only how far we’ve come, but that our goal of reducing these disparities is actually within our reach and very doable.”

As part of a relatively new system under federal accountability rules, Minnesota education officials monitor districts for student achievement progress in subgroups: white, black, Hispanic, American Indian, Asian, special education, low-income and English language learners.

Officials now report that 43 percent of Minnesota school districts are on track to hit the 2017 goal across in reading for all subgroups; 32 percent are on track in all but one subgroup.

In math, 40 percent of districts are on track in all subgroups; 26 percent are on track in all but one.

How well is your district doing? There's a link at the bottom of this webpage to a spreadsheet that shows how many subgroups are still not on track in each of the state's school districts.

Minnesota traditionally has had high-performing students compared to others in the nation – but also one of the widest achievement gaps in the country, with some minority students scoring as much as 30 points lower on tests than white peers.

Last year, state officials noted some progress, but they admitted there was much work left to be done.

MPR News looked at one district's effort to tackle the problem.

Schools with the widest gaps in test scores get extra help from math, reading and writing experts, sprinkled in regional centers around the state, including one in St. Cloud, MPR reports. The director there has been immersed in the data and coordinating efforts with school principals like Dave Oehrlein at Paynesville Elementary in Paynesville. He told MPR that for two years, teachers have been targeting students with the lowest test scores for special instruction. The school also offers programs before and after school for lower-achieving students.

The Star Tribune notes that two of the state's most diverse districts — Minneapolis and St. Paul — fell short in nearly every student subgroup.

Anoka-Hennepin, the state's largest district, is mostly on track, surpassing goals for American Indian, Asian, Hispanic and black students, and those with limited English proficiency, the newspaper notes.

“I think I am most proud of the fact that we stick with our kids,” retiring Superintendent Dennis Carlson told the newspaper. “We recognize the fact that everyone learns in different ways.”

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