New accountability system misses many excellent schools, but may help families, students

By JOE NATHAN – Gazette Columnist

Potentially misleading, probably more reasonable and potentially helpful. That’s how families may view a new system of accountability that was just released by the Minnesota Department of Education (MDE).

Confusing? Why won’t you find some of Minnesota’s highest performing schools in the MDE’s just released 125 top-ranked "reward" list of schools? Because according to MDE Policy Specialist Sam Kramer, they don’t receive federal "Title One" funds to serve low-income students. Kramer adds that, "federal law prevents us" from listing including schools on this list unless they are "Title One."

As Independent School District 834 Superintendent Corey Lunn pointed out, while "identifying succeeding Title One Schools is a positive message, it also creates confusion for how schools that are not identified as Title are recognized and fit into this new system. If a non-Title One 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.

Will the changes produce improvements? Maybe. Jeff McGonigal, associate superintendent in Anoka believes the new system means, "the public has better information."

Mark Ziebarth, Isanti and Four-Seasons Elementary principal reports, "Our professional development for next year is directly related to the needs identified in the reports."

Mitch Clausen, Cambridge-Isanti High School principal believes that "the new system may work out to be better. The down side is that we test a different group set of students each year. (ninth writing, 10th is reading and 11th is math.

Braham Superintendent Greg Winter writes, "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."

The information just released is not about how well students or schools did during the 2011-2012 school year that is ending. The results reported recently are from the 2009-10 and 2010-11 school year. This fall, the MDE releases results for the 2011-12 school year.

And this is not a farewell to the federal "No Child Left Behind" law that requires states to establish standards in reading, and math, and requires schools to test students in various grades, with state reports. Minnesota still requires students in third through eighth grades 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" for being a top-rated school. Kramer and Keith Hovis, MDE deputy communications director, said 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 are proclaimed "reward" schools.

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?

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 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 the 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 is a former public school teacher and administrator and directs the Center for School Change. Reactions are welcome at [email protected].