After months of mixed signals, U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos appears poised to do what the Every Student Succeeds Act expects of her and approve state-developed school accountability plans. “My criteria for approval is clear,” she said recently. “Does the state’s plan adhere to the law?” If so, she is “happy to approve it.”

That’s a pretty low bar, but it’s also faithful to the spirit of the statute, which pushed key decisions to the states.

It means that, unlike the finger-pointing that occurred in many places under the previous law, known as No Child Left Behind, Minnesota officials no longer will be able to blame micromanagement from Washington, D.C., for unfortunate policies, practices and outcomes in their states.

Gov. Mark Dayton and the Minnesota Department of Education therefore have full responsibility to finalize an education plan that is good for children in the Land of 10,000 Lakes.

Unfortunately, Minnesota’s current draft is sorely lacking.

The good news is that the final plan isn’t due to the U.S. Department of Education until Sept. 18, so policymakers still have time to correct the current proposal’s several flaws.

They would be wise to begin with three key components.

First, Minnesota should assign annual summative ratings to schools that are clear and intuitive for parents, educators and the public — something like A-F grades or a zero-to-five-star system. Unfortunately, the state’s current draft omits annual summative ratings altogether. This does the people of Minnesota a deep disservice. For more than two decades, such ratings have been at the heart of state accountability systems — and for good reason. Easy-to-understand labels provide clear signals about the quality of a school and can nudge it toward improvement.

Second, Minnesota should encourage schools to focus on all of their students, not just low performers, by both looking beyond proficiency rates when measuring student achievement and also measuring how much progress all students make from one year to the next. A preoccupation with proficiency — another legacy of No Child Left Behind — leads schools to prioritize students just below or above the cutoff, to the detriment of high achievers, especially those from disadvantaged circumstances. Minnesota should instead measure achievement and academic progress in ways that give schools credit for helping students along the entire performance spectrum. The state might, for example, pair a measure of growth for all students with an index that gives schools partial credit for students at a basic level of achievement, full credit for students at proficient and additional credit for students at an advanced level.

Finally, Minnesota should fairly measure and judge all schools, including those with high rates of poverty. When evaluating schools, we should stress what is under their control — how much they help students grow academically while under their care. Schools can’t do much about the poverty that leads some children to arrive in kindergarten far behind their peers. What they can and must do is help those kids to catch up.

When it comes to education policy, states including Minnesota have been asking for the football for years now. It’s time for Dayton to lead his team to a touchdown.

 

Brandon L. Wright and Michael J. Petrilli are editorial director and president, respectively, of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, an education policy think tank.