After years of intense pressure on school test scores, the state's education department on Monday submitted a final plan to the federal government that broadens its previous reach — promising to evaluate more schools than before, and in a well-rounded fashion.
With the federal No Child Left Behind education law being replaced by the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) nationwide, Minnesota will focus on the lowest-performing schools that get federal money for low-income students.
Test scores will be just one part of the picture. School performance evaluations will also include factors like consistent student attendance.
But the state also will examine the lowest-performing students broken down by race, socioeconomic status and disability.
Some schools that weren't targeted on those criteria before would be pinpointed, said education department spokesman Josh Collins.
Students statewide will continue to take regular tests, and the state still has ambitious goals: Ninety percent of its students will be math and reading proficient by 2025. By 2020, 90 percent of high schoolers will graduate in four years.
"Minnesotans have always placed a high value on our schools and the world of opportunities that come from a great education," state Education Commissioner Brenda Cassellius said in a statement on Monday.
Monday was Minnesota's deadline to submit an ESSA plan. The new system aims to give states more autonomy.
The plan was in draft form throughout August, when education advocates weighed in. The plan wasn't rigorous enough to move schools out of low-performance designations, some said. Others thought defining teacher effectiveness could be difficult.
Madaline Edison, executive director of the state's chapter of Educators for Excellence, had some initial worries that were partly eased when she reviewed Monday's plan. "What it really comes down to with this plan is going to be, how is it implemented?" she said.
The state has scrapped its previous measuring system for one it calls the funnel.
It starts by pinpointing certain student groups, or schools, like ones with high numbers of poor kids receiving federal money, called Title 1. The schools that are the lowest performers in a multitude of categories like low academic achievement and academic progress get the most support. The Title 1 schools that tank in one or two of the categories will also receive help.
The funnel has come under fire for being confusing and unfamiliar to the public. Groups like Minnesota Comeback, a coalition of foundations and business leaders aiming to close the achievement gap, are urging a system that's easier to grasp. "We want something that's simple for families," said Rashad Turner, director of community engagement.
Kayann Comeaux, a parent advocate at Minnesota Comeback, said the plan is filled with political jargon and that parents need a scale to evaluate the performance of schools.
Collins said the system boosts accountability, gives families more in-depth information and lets the state direct aid to more schools than before. Between 300 and 400 schools will be pinpointed and helped with the new program, more than twice as many as under the state's No Child Left Behind waiver, the plan said.
Advocates like Denise Specht of the statewide teachers' union Education Minnesota applauded the commissioner's open process in creating the plan.
In addition to the funnel, the plan also includes strategies to ensure low-income and minority children aren't "disproportionately taught by inexperienced, ineffective or out-of-field teachers."
The federal education department has 120 days to respond to Minnesota's plan before it can be implemented.