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Published July 12 2010

Private schools promote scores

When prospective parents look into St. Joseph’s Catholic School in Moorhead, chances are they’ll hear about its performance on Minnesota’s standardized math and reading tests.

Private schools are not required to take the tests, which for public schools largely determine compliance with the federal No Child Left Behind law. But a small number, including several in this area, administer the tests, known as the MCA-IIs. Test scores can be a handy marketing tool and a way to gauge how students stack up against public school peers.

“The MCAs show us how we’re doing in comparison to those around us,” said Leslie Honebrink, St. Joseph’s principal.

St. Joseph’s, which has all its students take the MCAs, touts its latest batch of scores: The school exceeded the state public school average proficiency by 10 percent in reading and by 15 percent in math. Its 14 seventh-graders, for instance, all scored proficient in reading.

Honebrink attributes the high scores to small class sizes, parents engaged in children’s learning and the school’s spiritual focus.

“It’s a nice comparison tool for us,” said Jason Smith, principal at St. Henry’s Catholic School in Perham, where 90 percent of students scored proficient in both math and reading. “I always use it in marketing because we always do better than the public schools do.”

Just last week, a family who came in to tour the school inquired about the MCAs. Smith said, “I could say, ‘Yep, here are our scores.’ ” He submits the scores to nine church bulletins and mentions them in his weekly spot on a local radio station.

Still, he points out, comparisons between public and private school scores are not exactly apples-to-apples. At St. Henry’s, for instance, one of 92 students has special education needs. Less than 20 percent qualify for free and reduced-priced lunch, compared to 40 percent at Perham Public Schools.

At Moorhead’s Park Christian School, students take the Stanford Achievement Test, which measures math, reading, science and other skills in each grade.

“We compare ourselves nationally, and we compare ourselves against other private Christian schools, which is a higher standard,” said Principal Chris Nellermoe.

This year, most grades at the school scored in the top 15th and 20th percentile among schools taking the test nationwide.

Statewide, about 50 out of more than 500 private schools took the MCA-IIs this past spring. Jim Field, president of the Minnesota Independent Schools Forum, says about half of students who start out in private elementaries transfer to a public school.

“Most of the private schools pay attention to what happens in public schools so their students can do well when they do transfer,” Field said.

Readers can reach Forum reporter Mila Koumpilova at (701) 241-5529