New standardized test scores indicate that literacy continues to be the strong suit in South Washington County Schools.

But math scores were flat, science scores dipped slightly and achievement gaps persist at some schools with a high number of black, Hispanic and low-income students, as well as those who are learning English.

The district scored an overall reading proficiency rate of 71.2 percent in the 2016 Minnesota Comprehensive Assessments, which were released last Thursday by the state Department of Education. That reflects a modest increase of 1.6 percent over last year.

In math, the district was only able to move the arrow 0.1 percent higher, while science scores declined slightly by 0.4 percent.

Proficiency is the combined number of students who meet or exceed state standards in reading, math and science. As in recent years, the district outperformed statewide averages in all three areas.

The overall reading increase, while slight, is the fourth consecutive gain posted by the district, said Brian Boothe, director of professional development and accountability.

"Sometimes slow and steady is a reality we face," he said. "Slow and steady progress is still progress."

The results show that efforts to improve student reading are paying off, he added. Boothe cited programs such as readers and writers workshop, where teachers work on literacy with small groups of students, and their pre-K readiness program.

"Those literacy practices have been ingrained in our school system for many years and the staff is comfortable with them and continue to get better at it," Boothe said. "The more you do it, the better you get at it. It think we're seeing the long-term benefits of that workshop approach."

Students in grades 3-8 and 10 take the reading exam. Fourth- and eighth-grade scores showed significant improvement, while sixth-graders posted the highest increase, from 68.2 percent in 2015 to 73.7 percent this year.

Fifth grade was another success story: They kept their reading proficiency rate at above 78 percent.

Seventh-grade reading scores showed a slight decline.

Achievement gaps

Achievement gaps persisted in scores posted by schools with the highest numbers of students in the free or reduced-price lunch program. These Title I schools, as they're known, include Park High School, Oltman Middle School, and Pullman, Newport and Crestview elementary schools. They scored lower than non-Title I schools:

• Park's 10th-grade students scored a 60.1 percent reading proficiency rate, compared with 81.5 percent at East Ridge High School and 75.2 percent at Woodbury Senior High School.

• Oltman Middle School had reading rates of 65.4 percent, 46.9 percent and 71 percent for grades 6, 7 and 8, respectively. The highest was Lake Middle School, whose three grades scored the highest reading proficiency rates with 80.3 percent, 67.3 percent and 77.5 percent. Overall, the middle schools increased their reading scores to 70 percent, a 2.2 percent increase in their 2015 score of 67.8 percent.

• Among elementary schools, Liberty Ridge Elementary in Woodbury posted the highest reading scores of 80.3, 83.4 and 84 percent in their respective grades of 3, 4 and 5. Cottage Grove Elementary also exceeded 80 percent proficiency across the board.

Liberty Ridge principal Michael Moore credits their success to building a strong literacy foundation as early as kindergarten. By the time students at Liberty Ridge reach the third grade and take their first MCA test, they've already had three years of strong reading instruction, he said.

"We have an outstanding reading specialist who continues to train our teachers on best practices and follow through to make sure those best practices are being implemented," Moore said.

"We meet regularly with our grade-level teams to talk about assessment and monitoring how students are doing. If they're not doing as expected, what are we going to do to make sure we can catch them up?"

Four times a week, reading tutors from AmeriCorps come to the school and work with primary age students, he said.

Another program, Parents as Reading Partners (PARP) pairs parent volunteers with kids who may need extra instruction, he said.

Math a 'holding pattern'

The district also failed to dent the achievement gap in math. The biggest improvement was a 7.8 percent narrowing between those who know English and their classmates who are learning English. However, a 30 percent gap remains.

Math proficiency varied among buildings. Sixth-graders at Oltman Middle School scored 45.8 percent, compared to 69.9 among sixth-graders at Woodbury Middle School and 73.6 percent at Lake Middle School.

Among the district's three high schools, East Ridge had the highest overall math proficiency score, at 69.7 percent, followed by Woodbury Senior High School at 66.4 percent and Park High School at 42.7 percent.

"It's in a holding pattern," Boothe said. "It's going to be an area of significant focus."

Math scores remain something of a moving target, inching down one year and up the next. The district has a small math pilot program and will focus training teachers in new and enhanced ways to teach math. It will entail "learning about how students develop an understanding of numbers," Boothe said. "We believe the increased focus in professional development over time will bring us better results."

In science, district elementary schools scored an overall proficiency rate of 73.5 percent, compared to the statewide score of 61.6 percent.

The four middle schools scored an overall 60.5 rate compared to the statewide score of 47.5 percent. High schools scored 70.6 percent. The statewide rate is 55.8 percent.

Above average in 834

Stillwater Public Schools outscored state averages in all three subjects, but reading and science proficiency rates dipped slightly overall, while math scores edged up.

Stillwater students posted a 70.8 percent reading proficiency rate, compared to 59.7 statewide.

In science, 64 percent were proficient compared to 54.7 percent of students across the state.

In math, 70.4 percent were proficient, compared to the state average was 59.4 percent.