Just over a year ago, state education officials determined that Sheridan Hills Elementary wasn’t quite cutting it. They didn’t label the Richfield school a failure, but it was implied.
“It was absolutely devastating to the teachers here,” Principal Jodi Markworth said. “They give their heart and soul to the job, and they knew we were better than that.”
On Tuesday, the Minnesota Department of Education agreed. It lifted failing designations from Sheridan Hills and 26 other schools that have shown significant improvement under the state’s new school-ranking system.
That system, now in its second year, is the product of Minnesota’s waiver from No Child Left Behind, the federal law that many educators despised because it forced states to label schools as actual failures. Under that system, almost half of Minnesota’s 2,200 schools were considered failures.
The latest data will allow 17 schools to come off the “Priority” list and 10 schools to leave the “Focus” list. The former are considered lagging in overall student achievement; the latter are cited for failing to close the achievement gap between white and minority students.
At Edison High School in Minneapolis, which shed its Priority label, Principal Carla Steinbach said, “I have no labels now. I feel free.”
Since the first round of new designations last year, the department has funneled extra help to struggling schools, and those efforts seem to be paying off. Of the state’s 25 Priority schools, 78 percent experienced improvement, while 71 percent of the 74 Focus schools saw gains.
“Today’s release is about the hard work taking place every single day in our schools to ensure the success of each child,” said Education Commissioner Brenda Cassellius.
How new system works
For the most part, school officials think the new system, called Multiple Measurements Ratings (MMR), is better than its predecessor. That’s because it has more layers than the old system, which only assessed how well students did on math, reading and science tests.
Under the new system, schools are judged on how well — or not — they’re addressing the achievement gap, graduation rates, academic growth and proficiency.
The old system was also more punitive. Schools not making adequate yearly progress had to come up with improvement plans. Some had to restructure staffs.
The new system is built around support for struggling schools and praise for high achievers. And only schools that receive federal poverty aid are eligible for the Priority and Focus designations, which require a state-approved school improvement plan.
“In retrospect, with that Priority label came tremendous support,” said Sherri Broderius, superintendent of the Atwater-Cosmos-Grove City district.
The district has one of three former Priority schools to earn a Reward designation, given to the top 15 percent of schools receiving federal poverty aid. “And it was research-based support that I wish would have come sooner.”
Some groups, however, say the MMR scores don’t come out fast enough to provide schools with useful feedback.
“It’s unrealistic for a school, in October, to take time off to analyze this data,” said Daniel Sellers, executive director of MinnCan, an education reform group. “This is something that schools want to do during the summer in preparation for the school year.”
Many schools saw significant fluctuations — increases or decreases of 50 percentage points or more — on their scores, prompting questions about how they are calculated.
Cassellius chalked up some of the fluctuations to the fact that MMR scores are influenced by the Minnesota Comprehensive Assessments, which were based on tough new reading standards this year.
“Any time a new test based on new standards is given, we can expect to see variations,” she said.
Five years ago, the tiny A.C.G.C. district was in statutory operating debt. Test scores were lagging. And the district adopted a four-day school week to save money.
Tuesday’s rankings show that A.C.G.C.’s elementary school had one of the biggest MMR gains — almost 80 points on a 100-point scale. Its fifth- and sixth-grade students posted a similar jump.
Broderius said the turnaround is a result of teachers embracing data to improve student instruction; implementing co-teaching; and using the district’s “off day” for intensive planning.
“We’ve transformed,” she said. “We’re not the same district we were even three years ago.”
Minneapolis sees success
Minneapolis saw several schools boost their MMR scores, including a few that shed the Priority and Focus designations. Besides Edison, they include Wellstone International High School and Kenny Elementary.
Patrick Henry High School increased its MMR score from 60 to 80 points and earned a Reward school designation.
“I would say that foundationally, we’ve developed a culture where every student’s greatness is seen and appreciated,” said Principal LaTanya Daniels.
Edison was the first school in Minnesota to receive a visit from Cassellius, who is seeking input from successful schools about turnaround strategies
Sheridan Hills in Richfield is now a “Celebration Eligible” school because of its gains, most notably among students learning English.
“It’s a huge psychological boost, a huge esteem boost for us,” Markworth said.