District attributes high test scores to keeping kids in class during COVID

There’s no sugarcoating the precipitous decline in Minnesota’s K-12 public school system and inverse relationship between increased funding and decreased results. The latest statewide test scores show more than half of students fail to meet basic proficiency standards in reading and math.

The already mediocre learning levels notched in recent years nosedived after authorities closed down schools and in-person classes. The worrisome trend and latest subpar results were summarized in the Mankato Free Press.

The share of K-12 students in Minnesota who hit grade-level proficiency standards for reading plummeted during the pandemic years, falling from nearly two-thirds of students in 2019 to fewer than half in 2022.

In math, the number who were proficient dropped by about 10 percentage points in statewide tests. The percentages have stabilized in the past two years, but the latest scores released Thursday remain well below 2019 figures statewide and in most south-central Minnesota school districts.

Mankato and a few other public school districts in the area achieved slightly higher results than the state average, but nothing to crow about with one exception. When it comes to the statewide assessment scores, Lake Crystal Welcome Memorial, a little-known district with less than 1,000 students in K-12, stands out over other nearby districts, big or small.

Lake Crystal was the regional champion by a hefty margin. More than 65% of LCWM students met or exceeded proficiency standards for their grade in reading compared to just under 50% statewide. The Knights mostly slayed the math standards as well with more than 61% proficient — 15 percentage points higher than the rest of Minnesota. In science, 42.9% of LCWM students were proficient compared to 39.2% statewide.

“We’re pleased with the scores,” said Lake Crystal Superintendent Mark Westerburg. “Of course, we look at them from the perspective of: No matter what they are, what can we do to continue improving the pattern?”

What accounts for the big advantage in achievement between LCWM and other districts? Westerburg credits sound elementary reading and math programs that equip students to be successful at the next level. But what really jumps out is how the district kept students on track and in class during the pandemic.

Probably the most notable difference with LCWM’s achievement results is how little the pandemic impacted the performance of the district’s students. The scores there barely dipped, if at all, during the peak COVID years and are now above what they were in 2019.

“One reason is that the elementary — even at the height of the pandemic — continued to be in-school,” Westerburg said.

The administration and School Board also were intent on getting older students back in classrooms as quickly as possible, even when some parents were adamantly opposed for health reasons.

“But the bulk of them understood why, and it paid dividends,” he said.

Test scores in smaller districts like LCWM can spike more widely in either direction due to fewer students taking tests. Yet there’s clearly a lesson to be learned from Westerburg’s determination to keep kids in school no matter what.

“It’s pretty hard teaching a second-grader reading from a laptop,” he said, referencing Zoom-based lessons.