In Minnesota, some schools get more for their money but student demographics matter, too
Roseau (Minn.) Public School District Superintendent Larry Guggisberg said a district doesn’t need to spend a lot of money to get results.
Of five districts in the region, his reported the best math and reading scores — both above the state average — while spending nearly the least per student. He credits the success to students and a community that knows the district has high expectations.
“The expectations are there with our parents, the expectations are there with our teachers, and as a result, the kids respond to that,” he said.
Like Guggisberg, many superintendents are proud of their district’s accomplishments. But how do districts really compare?
The Herald compared five districts in northwest Minnesota — East Grand Forks, Crookston, Thief River Falls, Roseau and Warroad — using a few key metrics for the 2012-2013 school year that showed more spending didn’t necessarily produce better results. East Grand Forks School District, for example, spent the least per student but had one of the highest graduation rates.
Of course, comparing schools with these guidelines represents a fraction of what a good education involves and doesn’t account for the host of variables affecting the results. Districts scored higher in some areas and lower in others compared to the state average. But superintendents said their communities are getting the best education possible and it can go beyond the numbers.
“We’re in the business of growing young people, and a math score doesn’t always do that,” said Thief River Falls Principal Shane Zutz.
The Herald compared districts based on a few metrics — per-student spending, graduation rates, test scores and average student-to-teacher ratio, all based on the most recent information from 2011 to 2013. Data were gathered from the Minnesota Department of Education website and the Minnesota Statewide Longitudinal Education Data System, or SLEDS.
Test scores were drawn from the Minnesota Comprehensive Assessment test, which provided one percentage representing the proficiency level of all students in Grades 3 through 8 and Grade 11.
Although districts across Minnesota are notably diverse, the percentage of minorities or English language learners in regional districts was either too small or varied too much for comparison. However those populations still figure into district test scores.
A district’s demographics can play a significant role in determining overall academic success, and the number of low-income students is one of the biggest indicators, according to educators.
In Crookston, nearly half of students during the 2012-2013 year were considered low-income and their test scores were the lowest of the five districts. For instance, 51 percent were proficient in math, which is 10 percentage points lower than the state average.
Superintendent Chris Bates said while the district is making more effort to boost scores, spending twice as much this year on a new reading curriculum, he also noted the town has developed into a “more needy” community than it was two decades ago. More severely handicapped and special education students are entering the school system, he said. Although the cost to educate these students extends beyond what’s provided in federal funding, he can’t specify how much, he said.
In Roseau, where students scored the highest overall of the five districts on state tests, roughly one-fourth of students were considered low-income. Guggisberg said this fact has helped his district score at or above state average, one of his main goals.
In his district, 81 percent of students were proficient in math and 66 percent were proficient in reading, 5 percentage points higher than the state average in each subject.
“When you don’t have a high concentration of poverty, and you don’t have a high concentration of minority populations, the cards are stacked in your favor,” he said.
With an 89 percent graduation rate, East Grand Forks had one of the highest such rates among the districts but the lowest per-pupil spending at $10,877.
Superintendent David Pace said he expects his students to graduate but also wants to improve on math and reading scores to make sure those numbers don’t decline. This year, they’re adding three new assistant principals so the district can focus more on curriculum and boost test scores, which generally meet the state average. This will cost about $168 more per student, he said.
District spending has a significant impact on keeping class sizes small, providing additional electives to students and likewise improving student achievement, he said.
In Warroad, the school district spent the most per-student — $10,877 — and had the lowest graduation rate of the districts looked at by the Herald at 79 percent. Superintendent Craig Oftedahl did not comment beyond saying each district has a unique set of issues.
“You do the best you can to try and attack as many of those issues as you possibly can,” he said.
In Thief River Falls, the graduation rate was in the middle — 86 percent — but the rate for special education students was outstanding, with 93 percent graduating. While this represents a very small number of students, each district had about the same number of total special education students.
Zutz credits the high percentage to an area learning center staffed with a special education teacher that allows students at risk of not graduating to regain footing.
“Our students are also dual-enrolled, so they can earn credits in a faster fashion,” he said.
College readiness is another way in which schools are often judged. Although the state doesn’t track the percent of remedial courses taken by graduates, the state longitudinal data system, known as SLEDS, tracks what kind of institution they attend.
In 2012, at least 40 percent of graduates in all five districts attended a public two-year college. The second-highest cohort attended institutions outside of the state, according to SLEDS.
Several superintendents said graduation rates and test scores are just a few components of a good education.
Long-term studies are greater indicators of a school’s progress, they said. One year’s worth of scores don’t account for student mobility, parent education, student motivation and a host of other factors that can complicate results, they said.
For instance, a student who attends a Thief River Falls high school but moves to another district and doesn’t graduate counts against Thief River Falls, said Zutz.
“I think our graduation rate is higher than what’s reported,” he said.
School data also doesn’t include whether a school offers great extracurricular activities taught by excellent teachers, the remedial and behavioral programs offered or the challenge districts face trying to get students up to par with state standards, said several superintendents.
“The biggest thing that determines student success always has been and always will be a great teacher,” said Bates. “When you have a qualified teacher in front of kids, almost always good things happen.”
Members of parent-teacher organizations and other education-related officials declined to comment for this story.
Zutz said parents shouldn’t take test results and graduation rates at face value.
“The important thing is, when you walk into that school, are you made comfortable? Will they take care of your kid? That’s what you want, anyway,” he said. “That other stuff will come if those needs are met.”