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Students in ND, Minnesota complain homework too easy

GRAND FORKS - You won't hear many students in North Dakota, Minnesota or anywhere else in the nation asking for more homework, but many of them are saying their homework is too easy, according to a report released this week.

In North Dakota, 34 percent of fourth-graders say they find math homework is "often" or "almost always" too easy. In Minnesota, it's 33 percent. The national average is 37 percent.

Similarly, 27 percent of eighth-graders in North Dakota say they only read five or fewer pages per day in school and at home. In Minnesota, it's 23 percent. The national average is 30 percent.

The statistics were compiled by the Center for American Progress, a non-partisan educational institute in Washington, D.C., after the group examined the background surveys of the National Assessment of Educational Progress. Commonly referred to as the Nation's Report Card, NAEP is administered every two years to fourth- and eighth-grade students to evaluate math, science and reading skills.

North Dakota educators the Grand Forks Herald spoke to acknowledge the statistics, but they questioned some statistics and said others weren't specific enough for their use.

"Students need to be motivated and the research clearly points out they need to be challenged," said Grand Forks School District superintendant Larry Nybladh. "If they are challenged, they will do better, so this is a legitimate inquiry for the nation to explore."

But he said students may not be at an age to accurately determine whether they are receiving enough school work.

"We find some are readily engaged and are challenged in school, while others are lesser engaged and receive less benefits from their instruction," said Greg Gallagher, director of standards and achievement with the North Dakota Department of Public Instruction. "But we can't see the million dollar question: How many high-achieving students are showing signs of not being challenged?"

The Center for American Progress report indicates a majority of 8th graders felt they almost or always are learning in math class.

In North Dakota, it's 63 percent and, in Minnesota, it's 62 percent. The national average is 65 percent.

The report also found that 81 percent of 8th graders in North Dakota and the same percentage in Minnesota say they are not taught engineering and technology. It's the highest rate in the nation, which averages 73 percent.

But Gallagher said surveyed students may not comprehend the definition of engineering. He said they are receiving education in the areas through a broadly defined science curriculum.

Pauline Iler, NAEP coordinator for the DPI, agreed.

Recent science and math scores, the two building blocks for engineering and technology, contradict the data and indicate students are receiving the education, she said.

"We have had the No. 1 science score in the last two NAEP assessments in 8th grade and we do very well in math and reading when compared to rest of the country," Iler said. "Even though we don't have control over the local (schools) and what they teach, I would say they are doing a good job."

The report provides great insight into areas that may need improvement, Nybladh said, but he feels it would best serve school districts if the study was broken down to district and classroom levels, rather than statewide.

"The local perceptions of administration leadership here is that there is no general perception in the district or at the school level that students are not being challenged with our curriculum" he said.

DPI standards are going through a transition period, Gallagher said, and there is an increasing focus on accountability and high academic standards.

Math, English and science curricula will become more rigorous with more defined expectations as part of a national push through the Common Core State Standards Initiative, he said.

North Dakota is one of 45 states that have adopted the standards, which the Center for American Progress said in its report is critical to public education nationwide. The standards will go into effect July 1, 2013, in North Dakota. Minnesota has not adopted the standards.

A study commissioned by the DPI found that CCSS was equivalent or not applicable in 45 percent of North Dakota's curriculum, 13 percent of North Dakota's curriculum was more rigorous than CCSS and 41 percent was less rigorous. The numbers do not add up to 100 percent because of rounding.

For instance, North Dakota's 3rd graders are solving multi-step word problems with whole numbers at 3rd grade level, but the new standards will have them solving the word problems at 4th grade level.

Gallagher said teachers, administration and state officials have spent the last year finding the best way to transition smoothly into the new academic standards.

"I have full confidence, in time, we will be able to incorporate that," he said. "The beauty of the common core is it allows teachers nationwide to participate in a common activity, building on each other's best efforts that can help teachers improve their overall instructional skills and go deeper into content."