Minnesota’s new school ratings

They may be confusing, but more reasonable – and maybe even helpful

Potentially misleading, probably more reasonable and hopefully, helpful.

That’s how families may view a new system of accountability that was just released by the Minnesota Department of Education (MDE).

1. Confusing — Why won’t you find some of Minnesota’s highest performing schools in the 125 top ranked “reward” list of schools that MDE just released?

Because, according to Sam Kramer, Minnesota Department of Education policy specialist, that’s because they don’t receive federal “Title 1” funds to serve low-income students. Kramer said, “Federal law prevents us” from including schools on this list unless they are “Title One.”

Corey Lunn, Stillwater superintendent pointed out that while “Identifying succeeding Title I Schools is a positive message, it also creates confusion for how schools that are not identified as Title I are recognized and fit into this new system. If a non-Title I school is not recognized as a “reward” school, yet is performing well, does this create unwarranted confusion for these families and schools?”

I’d say “yes.”

Shouldn’t Congress consider modifying this? Yes. Shouldn’t the 2013 Minnesota Legislature explore ways to honor outstanding schools that don’t receive federal dollars to serve low-income students? Yes.

2. Will the changes produce improvements? Maybe.

Timothy Bjorge, Little Falls Community High School principal told me, “Although complicated, the system seems to be a fairer depiction of our schools. Realize that a system that has to work for Minneapolis as well as a small school like Little Falls is going to have to have some complexity to it. It’s still mostly based on Minnesota Comprehensive Assessment (MCA) scores, but we now get credit for the areas where we are doing well. Improvement is now part of the equation and counts in meeting a target. High school graduation rate is also taken into account and that certainly works in our favor.”

Vern Capelle, dean of students at Upsala High School, said, “I believe it is too early to judge the effectiveness, but I like the idea of measuring schools on growth. The measures that will be used to evaluate schools are more realistic.”

George Weber, Pierz area superintendent agreed. “Overall it is too early to tell if the new testing company and new tests will provide better instructional data than the old MCA tests,” he said. “Getting the results immediately and allowing a second test is an improvement. I am not sure if the new labels for schools (Focus, Priority and Reward) mean anything relative to raising student achievement for our state. I think there is too much time and money spent on how to report and what to call schools. I think our state and nation would be better served if the emphasis was specific to creating high quality assessments that could accurately measure communication, problem solving and critical thinking skills.”

Weber said,  “If our nation’s schools were given unique and differentiated assessments in these areas, then the profession of teaching and learning could then fly faster with finding creative ways to deliver the instruction that will increase these skills. Our nation and state would have a better future if we knew this was the focus for our children.”

3. No, the information just released is not about how well students or schools did during the 2011-2012 school year that is just concluding. The results reported recently are from the 2009-10 and 2010-11 school year. This fall, the Minnesota Department of Education will release results for the 2011-12 school year.

And no, this is not a farewell to the federal “No Child Left Behind” law that required states to establish standards in reading and math, and required schools to test students in various grades, with state reports. Minnesota still requires students in grades 3-8 and in high schools to be tested. The state will continue to report results, along with graduation rates.

Also, there is no “reward” right now for being a top rated school. Kramer and Keith Hovis, MDE deputy communications director, say the department hopes to establish some form of “public private partnership” (which means an individual, company or foundation will help provide a cash reward to the “reward” schools). But these schools can tell people that they are “reward” schools.

4. Finally, yes, the information about schools is being released in a different way.

Until this year, Minnesota schools could be on a “needs improvement” list if even one small group of students did not make required “annual yearly progress.” Last year in about half of the state’s schools  were   on   the   needs

improvement    list.    The  cur-

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rent system does seem more reasonable than that system which educators hated.

Each public school with more than 20 students in a “subgroup” will now receive a “Multiple Measurement Rating” – a number between 1 and 100. Those are available now for most (but not all public schools) in  the   state.  The

new system uses four factors: what percentage of subgroups in a school met their “state-wide proficiency targets,” how much growth did students make, how do a school’s low income students do compared to other Minnesota students, and (if a high school), did the students reach 85 percent or more graduation rate?

The state will focus its improvement efforts on schools serving low-income students that consistently have the lowest scores.

Charlie Weaver, executive director of the Minnesota Business Partnership, is concerned that in the new system, student gains weigh as much as percentage of students who reach standards.

“Businesses care not just about improvement, but whether the employees meet standards and can do their jobs,” he said.

Thanks to MDE’s Hovis and Kramer, who answered many questions I asked about the new system. I think the Multiple Measure system needs refinement, but will give families a broader view of what’s happening in public schools.

Joe Nathan, formerly a Minnesota public school teacher and administrator, directs the Center for School Change, Macalester College. Reactions are welcome via e-mail at jna [email protected]