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Test scores flat despite early start in SW MN

MINNEAPOLIS (AP) — Starting school two weeks before Labor Day didn't improve students' test scores in the first year as officials had hoped, but a superintendent said the results didn't shake his confidence in a three-year experiment in southwestern Minnesota.

State law prohibits starting school before Labor Day, but a consortium of 25 districts got special permission from the Minnesota Department of Education to do so in 2010. The extra teaching days in the summer were expected to help raise test scores in the spring. But the first progress report released Monday showed scores stayed flat.

"Even though we're not meeting our intermediate targets, even though we are holding steady — and we're thoughtful about those two things — we are very optimistic our hypothesis will hold true," said Bill Strom, superintendent of the Mountain Lake public schools.

Strom said an additional analysis by the Education Department showed the 25 districts also didn't outperform the state as a whole, instead the consortium schools just kept pace. Strom said there's no way to tell if the consortium schools would have fallen behind had they not added the extra teaching days.

While the test scores didn't meet the group's expectations, Strom said the districts were making good progress toward consolidating their teacher training programs and improving the collection and analysis of student data, which should help teachers tailor lessons to individual students.

"We are convinced that when you add time ahead of the assessments, you are going to improve the likelihood that student test scores will increase," Strom said. "The piece that we are excited about is what we are doing to train teachers and staff in the use of those extra days."

The results are evidence that the department shouldn't grant any more waivers to the law prohibiting starts before Labor Day until the test scores in the 25 districts improve, said Rep. Larry Howes, R-Walker, who sponsored the 2005 law.

He said early starts hurt the Minnesota State Fair, resort owners and other tourism businesses that need one more week of summer vacation. "At this point in time, I would say let's finish these three years and see what happens," Howes said.

The reports filed with the Education Department included the results of a survey of 5,188 students, parents and staff in the districts by Southwest Minnesota State University. When compared to a survey taken before the start of the school year, it showed people in the district were warming to the new schedule.

For example, the students surveyed said they strongly preferred ending the first semester before the winter break so they didn't have to worry about homework during Christmas. They also thought the earlier start would increase test scores, although the teachers surveyed were less sure that it would, the report said.

The report also found starting the school year earlier didn't diminish students' exhibiting at the state fair through 4-H clubs. Superintendents in rural areas contacted the 4-H coordinators in each of the 10 counties that included one of the 25 school districts. Contrary to some expectations, they found a 6 percent increase in the number of state fair exhibitors from those counties, from 635 in 2009 to 676 in 2010.

Jerry Hammer, general manager of the state fair, said he remains concerned that the early start would hurt participation not just in 4-H, but also as guests and exhibitors through other agricultural programs.

"We're in the same business," he said of the schools. "There are all sorts of education opportunities at the fair. This is the biggest field trip a kid will take all year."

Strom said travel to the state fair was excused for students and faculty members. Late August vacations were also excused. He said the 2010-2011 school year ended about two weeks early in the participating districts; the exact date depended on the number of days canceled due to bad weather.

Copyright 2011 The Associated Press.

Denton (Denny) Newman Jr.
I've worked at the Brainerd Dispatch with various duties since Dec. 7, 1983. Starting off as an Ad Designer and currently Director of Audience Development. The Dispatch has been an interesting and challenging place to work. I'm fortunate to have made many friends, both co-workers and customers.
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