MNUDL Debater delivers his speech while using a stack of books as his lectern.MNUDL students outpace their peers on standardized tests by flexing mental muscles developed through policy debate.

Minnesota schools are striving to shrink the opportunity gap by half in 2017 and close it in 2020, yet recent MCA data reveals only 28% of students of color tested proficient in reading in 2017, compared with 74% of white students. How can the promise to low-income students and students of color for equitable education be fulfilled? MNUDL provides a compelling argument: debate.

As the opportunity gap widens in St. Paul and Minneapolis, data from a 3-year survey demonstrates MNUDL students exceed academic goals. The Minneapolis Public Schools’ Research, Evaluation, Assessment and Accountability Department analyzed Minnesota Comprehensive Assessment (MCA) scores for UDL students from 2014-2016. MNUDL students achieved 12-14% higher reading scores on the MCA per year, even after controlling for race/ethnicity, income, and past academic performance.

Skills drilled during each practice, round, and tournament prepare students for academic achievement. In the 2014-2015 MPS MNUDL Report’s focus group, students explained that debate helped them “gain vocabulary and reading speed” and to “skim, interpret, and think critically about their reading.” One student explained that since joining debate: “I read faster… and take notes about what I’m reading. I ask questions of myself.”

MNUDL students are in good company. Urban debaters nationwide celebrate academic growth. A 10-year assessment of 12,000 students published in The Journal for Adolescence in 2012 shows urban debaters are more likely to achieve ACT college readiness in English by 34% and in Reading by an impressive 74%. Even students with limited participation improved!

Standardized tests are just one tool to measure academic achievement – and debate’s effects are not only seen on bubble sheets. A 10-year study of Chicago Public Schools published by the National Association for Urban Debate Leagues reports UDL participation improves GPA, attendance, and high school graduation rates. MNUDL students’ minds also expand outside the box of their classroom. The Minneapolis Public Schools’ Research, Evaluation, Assessment and Accountability Department reported MNUDL students are able to “modify school assignments into work that they found more meaningful, interesting, and enjoyable.” As one student states: “I’m not thinking about me or the people around me. I’m thinking globally, politically, economically…”

Debaters read to understand complex issues in their preparation for after-school competition – but MNUDL students’ success shows those reading skills are preparation for challenges during school, too.