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Minnesota parents and educators will soon see the results of a whole new yardstick for measuring schools that gives state tests new meaning and the state's schools new labels.
The Minnesota Department of Education on Tuesday will present a new accountability system that reshuffles the rankings and removes the biggest penalties for schools at the bottom.
"Personally, what I find most exciting is that we're not just focusing on failures," said Sam Kramer, the department's point man for the new accountability system. "We've created a system that has incentives in place for success. And we know that in education people tend to respond to rewards, rather than just punishment."
The new system arises from the waiver granted to Minnesota by the U.S. Department of Education that frees the state from some of the tougher requirements of the federal No Child Left Behind Law, such as the mandate that all students be proficient in reading and math by 2014.
Under the new plan, schools will still be judged on their students' scores in math and reading, but they will also have to show academic growth in individual students, a strong high school graduation rate, and a shrinking achievement gap between middle-class white students and their classmates.
Many Minnesota educators are cautiously endorsing the system, which they believe is more fair than the old one.
"In general, it is better because it adds criteria that didn't exist under No Child Left Behind," said Jim Angermeyr, director of research and evaluation for Bloomington Public Schools. "It goes beyond simple proficiency."
Reward, Focus, Priority
Last year, nearly half of all Minnesota schools were considered failing under the federal law. Schools that repeatedly missed the mark were required to provide students with free after-school tutoring or busing to better schools, and eventually had to replace principals and teachers.
That one-size-fits-all approach left some school administrators complaining that prodigious efforts to boost test scores went unrecognized if students didn't score as proficient.
Under the new system, the top-performing 15 percent of schools receiving federal poverty aid, about 125 schools, will be dubbed "Reward" schools.
The lowest-performing 5 percent of poverty schools will now be called "Priority" schools. They must submit plans to show improvement, but they'll have more freedom on how to do it. Schools must begin working on those plans immediately and submit them to the state Education Department for approval by Sept. 1.
A third new label -- "Focus" schools -- will go to the 10 percent of poverty schools performing the worst when it comes to closing the achievement gap.
In addition, roughly 1,600 schools will be given a rating based on their test scores, improvement in scores, graduation rate and achievement gap.
Some surprises in store
There could be some surprises in the new ratings. Some schools that performed poorly enough to win federal school improvement grants will do better when more factors are considered, Kramer said.
Meanwhile, wealthier schools that traditionally post high test scores may not look as good on the comparison of how much improvement their students are making year to year, said David Heistad, research director for Minneapolis schools.
"There are some schools we're seeing in the data that are going to be pretty alarmed," Kramer said, referring to some high-testing schools that score low on the added measures.
Minneapolis research specialist Chris Moore said that the old method of rating school performance mainly on test scores created a focus on "bubble kids," those just above or below testing proficient. But measuring growth makes every student's progress count more, he said.
Advocates see promise
At its outset in 2002, the No Child Left Behind law was welcomed by advocates for minority education because it held schools accountable if students of color -- plus those in poverty, learning English or needing special education -- didn't perform as well as white students in hitting proficiency in math and reading. The law also gave students the options to switch schools or get extra tutoring if their schools didn't improve fast enough.
The new system will help lagging schools improve by showing what's working, said Minneapolis school board member Kim Ellison.
Bill English, co-chair of the Coalition of Black Churches, is reserving judgment on the new plan but likes the fact that it rewards schools that are making strong progress even if they're not yet proficient.
Waiver fails for some
Not everyone in Minnesota, however, supports the waiver championed by Minnesota Education Commissioner Brenda Cassellius.
The Minnesota Business Partnership, for example, has argued that the waiver puts too much emphasis on getting better, rather than on meeting academic standards.
"What I like to compare it to is if they started giving out driver's licenses to people who fail the test but did a little better than they did the year before," executive director Charlie Weaver told the Star Tribune when the waiver was approved earlier this year.
So far, 11 states have received waivers of key provisions of the NCLB law, and another 26 applied for waivers at the end of February. The effect of this widespread reworking of the federal law is still untested.
"The big question is how will these systems be implemented and can anyone understand them?" said Natasha Ushomirsky, a K-12 policy analyst with the Washington, D.C.-based Education Trust. "How will states be able to translate these systems in a way that provides a clear message for educators on the ground? That remains to be seen."