Minnesota’s new rating of schools misses many excellent schools, but may help families & students

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).  It’s called “Multiple Measurements Rating” (MMR).

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, they don’t receive federal “Title 1” funds to serve low-income students.  Kramer says, “federal law prevents us” from including schools on this list unless they are “Title One.”

Sandy Morrow of Swan River Charter in Monticello responded, “I think the MMR is a step in the right direction:  the MDE is using multiple measures, acknowledging successful schools, and giving struggling schools three years to make improvements.  I am disappointed that although Swan River meets the criteria for a Reward School designation; we will not be identified as such because we are not a Title I school.”

Corey Lunn, Stillwater superintendent, agrees, pointing 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 1 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.

Lunn also wrote, “my sense is that there will need to be much more education for the schools and communities to understand the new system….I look forward to the day when as much time is spent on adequately funding schools and engaging communities to work together on the needs of our students as there has been lately on developing and explaining changing accountability systems.”

2. Will the changes produce improvements? Maybe.  Jay Haugen, Farmington superintendent, told me, “”I applaud the decision the MDE made to put together a system that, though complex and hard to explain, more accurately reflects the success schools are having based on their unique student populations.”

However, Burnsville Superintendent Randall Clegg wrote, “ Minnesota’s new Multiple Measurement Rating system does provide for a more expansive examination of student achievement data bringing additional focus to the state’s persistent achievement gap.  However, no matter how the data is dressed up or communicated, the use of high-stakes testing as a driver of educational reform will never foster the type of schools everyone so deeply desires.”

Braham superintendent Greg Winter believes, “The new MMR rating is an evolution of sorts to create a system make a determination of the success or failure of a school by statistical analysis.  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 schools that have found success.”

Rosemount-Apple Valley-Eagan Public Schools Superintendent Jane Berenz said she “was pleased when the state’s waiver was granted and the fiscal sanctions for not making AYP were removed. “Removal of sanctions allows for Title I funding that had to be used for tutoring and transportation of a few students to be used to personalize learning for improved student achievement.”

Fridley Public Schools Director of Educational Services, Imina Oftedahl, commented, “The new state rating system will definitely allow us to better evaluate success with all of our students. The focus on achievement gap closure and growth are a welcome addition to the proficiency information.  However, having a single percentage score may not be meaningful to parents especially when it has so much data included in it that they don’t see.”

Cam Hedlund, director of Lakes International in Forest Lake, responded, “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%, and the bottom 10% and 5% for special recognition, would be to designate based on criteria regardless of the percent, e.g. all schools showing 85% of students meeting or exceeding growth targets would receive top designation (Reward status).”

Bob Noyed, Executive Director of Communication and Community Relations, Eden Prairie Schools, wrote  “We appreciate the state including multiple areas of school performance in the new system and are cautiously optimistic that this new accountability system will, in the end, provide a more comprehensive picture of Minnesota’s schools. That said, we are still in process of fully understanding the new rankings.  We consider these preliminary results to be baseline and are looking forward to August when our most current data is measured in the system.”

3. Noyed makes a key point.  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.

George Weber, Pierz area superintendent wrote, “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.  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.  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.”

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 now 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 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 4 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% 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.”

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.