Proposed new Mn school rating system would hurt, not help

The column below was published in a number of ECM suburban and rural Mn newspapers during April, 2018.

Parents Maria Cisneros, John Merrow, Khulia Pringle and Heather Starks are on different sides of a major education debate at this year’s Minnesota Legislature. Minnesota Department of Education has prepared and is expanding descriptions of each public school.

People disagree whether:

• Each Minnesota public school should also receive a rating on a one- to five-star scale;

• If yes, what should determine a school’s grade?

Minnesota’s current education report card, at rc.education.state.mn.us, shares information about each school. MDE convened meetings around the state to improve it by creating a “dashboard.”

A broad coalition of parent and education groups supports the “dashboard” approach for each public school while opposing star ratings. This includes the Minnesota PTA and state associations of district, charter, alternative, suburban, rural and urban district public schools, the teachers union (Education Minnesota) and school administrators..

Heather Starks, president of the 8,000-member Minnesota PTA, supports this approach. She wrote that the PTA opposes the star system in part because it’s based on “much fewer data points than what is possible in a new data dashboard. It limits the possibilities of parent understanding. … A simple star rating based on one-day test result, attendance and graduation rates does not give a clear nor accurate assessment of a school.” (Here’s the PTA’s statement: https://bit.ly/2q4l6RA.)

John Merrow, a parent and one of the nation’s most honored education journalists, found that statewide reporting systems influence schools’ priorities. He recommends including, for example, how much time schools spend on physical fitness. Since about 20 percent of American students are obese, Merrow wrote: “Instead of only asking for test scores, let’s also ask, ‘How many hours of recess do students have each week?’ … If we don’t ask, if we don’t demand measurement, it will not happen!” (You can read more of what he has to say at https://bit.ly/2EgpCRq.)

Years ago, the American College Testing program found that participation in programs like debate, speech, drama and music was a better predictor of adult success than test scores. So it would help families to know what percentage of a secondary school’s students are in one or more of these programs.

The Minnesota Business Partnership, EdAllies Minnesota, and Latino Youth Development Council, plus some parents, endorsed star ratings. The Minnesota Business Partnership, EdAllies Minnesota, and Latino Youth Development Council, plus some parents, endorsed star ratings. They support bills basing elementary and middle schools’ ratings on several factors involving Minnesota’s statewide reading and math scores, and attendance rates. High schools would be judged on the same plus graduation rates.

Maria Cisneros agrees with this. She testified, in part: “We demand that school ratings are public, understandable, and easy to access, that as parents we are able to see how each state school is rated, with a rating by population (Hispanic, White, Native American, etc.) and that this information be made available by technological means, in printed form, and school bulletins, that this information be available in public places.” (Her testimony, and other star support, is here: https://bit.ly/2q4ng3Q.)

Khulia Pringle, another parent, told me: “Parents want to know proficiency rates and graduation rates. We know that test scores are faulty and biased. But many people don’t give parents of color enough credit.” Pringle suggests other information be included, such as the percentage of students in each group who are suspended.

Minnesota Education Commissioner Brenda Cassellius wrote via email: “We are committed to continue working with stakeholders all over the state — just as we did when creating our ESSA state plan — to provide a clear and transparent view of a school’s progress toward meetings state goals, and ensuring all their students are succeeding. [However,] As currently written, the proposal in the Legislature would provide inaccurate information that is misaligned with our school support and intervention plans. Creating two separate report cards is unnecessary, expensive and confusing for parents.” Here’s MDE’s comparison: https://bit.ly/2uKN5uy.

Families and community members deserve an array of accurate information about schools. Some parents are understandably frustrated with information available and youngsters’ progress.

However, I agree with Dave Heistad, one of Minnesota’s most respected K-12 researchers. He directs research, evaluation and assessment for Bloomington Public Schools. Heistad believes the star system is “potentially misleading and even harmful to reduce complex statistical information on student learning to a single number, letter grade, or in this instance, categorization of school quality from one to five stars.”

Joe Nathan, formerly a Minnesota public school teacher, administrator and PTA president, directs the Center for School Change.  Reactions welcome, joe@centerforschoolchange.org.