New state ratings system misses many top schools

Joe Nathan
Education Columnist

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.

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 says, “federal law prevents us” from listing including schools on this list unless they are “Title One.”

As 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 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.

Linda Madsen, Forest Lake Area Schools superintendent, told me: “The new system emphasizes four areas: proficiency, growth, progress in closing achievement gaps and graduation rate. This is more inclusive than the previous system.

“In addition, the focus is on providing long term assistance to schools that do not meet the established criteria rather than just reporting to the media and placing additional restrictions on schools.”

Cam Hedlund, director of Lakes International Language Academy charter school, wrote: “I commend MDE, they have tried very hard to create a system that is informative and non-punitive.

“However, I don’t like grading on a curve and believe a better system than designating the top 15 per cent, and the bottom 10 percent and 5 percent  for special recognition, would be to designate based on criteria regardless of the percent, e.g. all schools showing 85 percent  of students meeting or exceeding growth targets would receive top designation (Reward status).

Julie Lundgren of Lakes International responded: “While Lakes International Language Academy is not a Title I school, we welcome the change from the NCLB accountability system. By looking at multiple measures of success, we are hopeful the new system will help communicate a more complete story about each named school, and increase the overall quality of education  in Minnesota.”

Steve Massey, Forest Lake High School principal told me: “The MMR provides a comprehensive measurement of a school’s performance, factoring both proficiency and growth over time. This system is a fair measure in that it determines student academic proficiency levels and achievement growth over time.

“The previous system penalized successful schools if a small segment of the school’s population failed to meet proficiency targets. Using multiple measurements to consider a school’s overall performance is a fair way to determine a school’s level of performance.”

However, Braham Superintendent Greg Winter wrote: “Although it does factor in other viable attributes of a school to make a more authentic determination of success or failure, it offers no solutions to address the specific issues to combat failure within a school system nor does it offer any real reward to those school that have found success.”

3. 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 in reading, writing and math.

The state will continue to report test 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 foundations will help provide a cash reward to the “reward” schools).  But these schools can tell others 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 about half of the state’s schools were on the needs improvement list.  The current 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 students around the state, and (if a high school), did the students reach 85 percent or more graduation rate?

Charlie Weaver, executive director of the Minnesota Business Partnership, is concerned that 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,” Weaver 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, a former public school teacher and administrator, directs the Center for School Change. Reactions welcome, joe@centerforschoolchange.org.

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