District 181 improvement plan to address test scores, learning gaps: Staff will work to return to pre-pandemic levels

"We’re going to have to relearn how to learn," Director of Teaching and Learning Tim Murtha said.

Tim Murtha, director of teaching and learning at Brainerd Public Schools, discusses the district's continuous improvement plan with the school board Monday, Oct. 25, 2021. Theresa Bourke / Brainerd Dispatch

School readiness, reading proficiency, career and college readiness, graduation and closed achievement gaps are all part of the continuous improvement plan at Brainerd Public Schools.

Director of Teaching and Learning Tim Murtha presented the plan to the school board Oct. 25, highlighting six goals:

  1. Proficiency on the early childhood summative assessment in reading will increase from 71.4% in 2021 to 74.4% in 2022.

  2. Proficiency on the third grade comprehensive assessment in reading will increase from 56.2% in 2021 to 59.2% in 2022.

  3. The proficiency gap between students in special education and non-special education on state reading accountability tests will decrease from 33.5% in 2021 to 30.5% in 2022.

  4. The percentage of 10th graders who meet or exceed the Minnesota Comprehensive Assessment career and college readiness benchmark will increase from 39.6% in 2021 to 42.6% in 2022.

  5. The percentage of high school students on track for graduation after four years will increase from 84.7% 2020 to 87.7% in 2021.

  6. The percentage of students who attend 90% or more school days will increase from 85.6% in 2019 to 88.6% in 2021.

The goals are based on the most relevant data coming out of the COVID-19 pandemic, Murtha said, though proficiency and achievement data from spring 2021 are not necessarily good baselines, as standardized testing was optional.
The highest achievement gap in the district, Murtha said, is between special education and traditional students, though race-based gaps exist as well.

"We know that some students were negatively impacted by COVID. We know that some groups were more negatively impacted by COVID than others."

— Tim Murtha, director of teaching and learning

The overall four-year graduation rate in 2020 was 85%. The statistic was 86% for white students, 54% for Black students, 71% for American Indian students, 75% for multi-race students and 76% for special education students.


During the combined years of 2017, 2018, 2019 and 2021, reading proficiency on the state comprehensive assessment tests for third and fourth graders was 64% among white students, 46% for Black students, 34% among American Indian students and 52% among multi-race students. Special education student proficiency was lower in all of those categories.

Data for science and math at various levels show similar trends.

“We want each student to succeed, and we want to find those mechanisms to support each student,” Murtha said earlier in October while presenting achievement data to the board.

While goals laid out in the continuous improvement plan drive the work and structures of the district’s staff development and leadership teams moving forward, Murtha also said the district needs to get back to pre-COVID-19 structures.

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“We know that some students were negatively impacted by COVID. We know that some groups were more negatively impacted by COVID than others,” he told the board Oct. 11. “So how do we bring this back to those levels of excellence and improve upon those levels moving forward?”

Staff had been making good progress before the pandemic, Murtha said, on a system in which teachers formulate their instruction based on classroom assessment data.
Social and emotional learning also needs to be a big focus moving forward, he said, as the pandemic affected multiple aspects of students’ lives.

“It’s not just an academic impact that occurred to students,” Murtha said. “It’s also that emotional impact, that separation, the lack of relationship development, the times in isolation, the frustration with not being able to do things the way we used to do with what we used to do.”


Bringing students back to pre-pandemic levels in those various areas — social/emotion and achievement — is a feat that’s going to take years to accomplish, he added.

“We cannot make up 18 months or almost two years of learning in one academic year. It will not happen,” Murtha said. “... This will take time to reestablish relationships. This will take time for us to reteach routines and procedures. We’re probably going to have to live through a brief period where discipline incidents run a little higher because we’re not used to being in school. And we’re going to have to relearn how to learn.”

Steps to achieve goals

Murtha laid out six steps for staff at each building to take to reach the goals in the continuous improvement plan.

The first step is to put together a continuous improvement team, which might look different at each site based on the student population. For example, a school that has a high amount of special education students might want more special education representation on the continuous improvement team than a school with fewer special education students. The principal’s role, Murtha said, is to put together the right team.

The next steps are to have the team review the district’s improvement goals, complete a needs analysis for the site and create unique site-based targets to meet those goals.

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After that is what Murtha referred to as the most important step — improvement design.

“This is where you identify the action steps that the district or the site or the people involved take to affect that change,” he said. “This should be identifying new work, it should identify how you’re going to evaluate whether it was done well, who’s responsible for doing it, what resources are needed, what timeframe is needed.”


The last step is evaluation, which will begin next spring and go into the summer as data starts to come in.

“And then you complete that cycle over again,” Murtha said. “It’s continuous working.”

THERESA BOURKE may be reached at or 218-855-5860. Follow her on Twitter at .
Related Topics: EDUCATION
Theresa Bourke started working at the Dispatch in July 2018, covering Brainerd city government and area education, including Brainerd Public Schools and Central Lakes College.
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