Minnesota imposes new labels on schools

The accountability system finds 213 schools missing the mark, compared with more than 1,000 under federal No Child Left Behind.

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Photography teacher Dave Sylvestre of Patrick Henry High School in Minneapolis coached students Mary Xiong, left, Peng Heng and Anthony Bridges.

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The full impact of Minnesota's accountability system came into view Thursday with the announcement of the final group of schools facing new labels and corrective actions.

State officials released the second list of schools subject to state scrutiny now that Minnesota has won a waiver from the requirements of the federal No Child Left Behind law.

All told, 213 schools are now labeled underperforming in some way, compared to more than 1,000 under No Child Left Behind. All are schools that receive federal Title I money to address higher levels of poverty. Those schools have to submit turnaround plans to the state, but unlike previous years, they no longer have to provide tutoring or transfers or face stricter penalties.

Advocates of the new system say it gives everyone a much clearer picture on how Minnesota's schools are really faring

"Some will look at this with a healthy dose of skepticism, but it's really giving educators a whole new level of data to assess students and gives them a much better idea about where to focus improvement efforts," Minnesota Education Commissioner Brenda Cassellius said.

Under the new system, schools were judged on their students' scores in math and reading, plus academic growth in individual students, a strong high school graduation rate and a shrinking achievement gap between middle-class white students and their classmates.

Gauging the gap

While many Minnesota schools continue to wrestle with the achievement gap, some are making strides. Sheridan Hills Elementary in Richfield showed the largest year-to-year improvement for metro area schools.

Kate Trewick, Richfield School District's chief of staff, attributed the school's improved "focus rating" to its new principal, its emphasis on literacy and its focus on training teachers to work with student who are learning English.

"It's a very integrated approach that they're taking," said. "It's not a quick fix kind of deal."

Other schools such as Eagan High School saw declines in performance.

Tony Taschner, the Rosemount-Apple Valley-Eagan's district communications director, said school officials knew that one of the high school's minority groups didn't fare well on the recent Minnesota Comprehensive Assessment, which was factored into the rating. "At this point, we're still trying to figure out what it all means," he said. "We know there is work to do with some subgroups on the MCAs."

Statewide, minority and poor students and those learning English showed better academic growth in math scores in 2012 compared with 2011. The new data, however, indicate that Minnesota schools aren't closing the achievement gap in reading.

Cassellius said she was optimistic that new incentives aimed at getting students to read well before third grade will pay off in coming years.

"Today's data shows that we're starting to bend the curve in the right direction," she said. "Minnesota's achievement gaps are still unacceptably large, but I believe the new accountability measures we've put in place, along with our new focus on closing gaps and improving outcomes for every student, will continue to accelerate gains we see today."

New labels, new plans

Under the state's new Multiple Measurement Ranking (MMR) system, most of Minnesota's 2,000 public schools received an overall numerical ranking, but only about a quarter -- those schools receiving federal poverty aid -- got one of five designations: Reward, Celebration, Continuous Improvement, Focus and Priority.

Schools with the Priority, Focus and Continuous Improvement designations must come up with plans to show improvement and will have to set aside 20 percent of their federal poverty aid to launch those plans.

Overall, the new system gives school more flexibility in implementing those plans. Only Priority and Focus schools must have their plans approved by the state Education Department.

Some school officials acknowledge that things won't change much at some schools, which launched turnaround initiatives prior to the latest round of labeling. In St. Paul, for example, some of the low-performing schools are improving under the district's Strong Schools, Strong Communities initiative, administrators say.

"This allows us to recognize those schools are making progress without having to blow everything up," said Matthew Mohs, St. Paul's director of funded programs.

Minneapolis' ups and downs

In Minneapolis, only 15 schools increased their overall performance from 2011 for the four factors that comprise the overall rating; 41 were rated lower.

Two Minneapolis schools were named to the new "Celebration" category for schools in the top 15 to 25 percent of schools getting federal poverty aid: Anthony Middle School and Patrick Henry High School. For Anthony, that was actually a demotion from the Reward designation it got in May before the latest round of test results.

Latanya Daniels, Henry's third-year principal, said the celebration designation "feels awesome to me." She said it reflects "a family of teachers who believe in our students on the North Side," more rigor in the school's first two years, and a switch to a longer school days with seven 50-minute periods.

Five Minneapolis schools were added to the group of continuous improvement, lower-ranking schools that are required to set aside part of their federal poverty aid to pay for improvement strategies. 

"We were kind of surprised at how much those MMR numbers can change from year to year," said Eric Vandenberk, the district's interim research director. 

kim.mcguire@startribune.com • 612-673-4469 sbrandt@startribune.com • 612-673-4438

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