Minnesota students will continue to take state tests, but the way that schools are graded will change dramatically under a new plan outlined Tuesday by the Minnesota Department of Education.

The new plan would take full effect in the 2018-19 school year. It replaces the ratings and labels given to public schools based on their performance with one that focuses on the lowest-performing 5 percent of Title 1-funded schools. It also would identify high schools with a graduation rate below 67 percent or where any student group — black, Asian, Latino or low-income, for example — falls below a 67 percent graduation rate.

Minnesota Department of Education (MDE) officials say the whole accountability system will work toward closing the achievement gap.

"You can't get away with just knocking it out of the park for your white kids," Josh Collins, department spokesman, said. "A lot of those schools have not been evaluated in that way. There will be schools showing up ... who are not used to that."

But a coalition of 18 advocacy organizations including the Minnesota Education Equity Partnership and the YWCA sent a letter to Minnesota Education Commissioner Brenda Cassellius saying the new approach sets the bar too low.

"It is possible for a school to not improve at all despite receiving support, but for other schools to perform worse, and for the school to still be exited from support," the letter reads.

The draft released Tuesday is part of the nationwide changeover from the decade-old federal No Child Left Behind law to the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) signed in 2015.

The act is intended to give states more power and freedom in decisionmaking.

Target: about 50 schools

About 50 schools make up the lowest-performing 5 percent of Title 1-funded schools, according to MDE. A school may not fall in the bottom 5 percent, but it may have an underperforming subgroup of students who would receive support, said Stephanie Graff, MDE's chief accountability officer.

A so-called "funnel" approach will direct extra support to schools with the lowest academic achievement and English language proficiency, academic progress and consistent attendance.

Consistent attendance will be added as an indicator of school performance. In 2018, the district will began assessing schools to check for chronic absenteeism.

Minnesota previously relied on a Multiple Measurements Rating system to score schools based on performance. The state dropped that system this past school year.

Students will continue to take the Minnesota Comprehensive Assessments (MCA) and Minnesota Test of Academic Skills (MTAS).

The new federal law puts more emphasis on funding and support for English language learners. Spanish, Somali and Hmong versions of math and sciences MCAs will be provided starting in 2018.

"Minnesota's ESSA state plan spells out a plan for us to include accountability measures for every single school in the state related to English learners," Graff said. "That is a big shift."

The plan also targets English learners who have entered the U.S. within the past 12 months.

The department will assess newly arrived students to measure their growth over time.

Aara Johnson, program director for Minnesota Education Equity Partnership, said the draft's plan to tackle equity in all high schools is a good step toward shining a light on which groups are not being served.

"Minnesota has been really proud of its grad rate, when you break it down there is a lot of disparity of graduation rates," Johnson said. "This has potential to get schools to address it."

A step back?

But advocates still have concerns that the new system will not give the public enough information.

"The current ESSA plan is a step back in terms of transparency," said Andrea Roethke, managing director of strategy and operations for the education advocacy group Ed Allies. "You either go through the funnel system and are identified for support or you are not. If you are not identified for support, there is no indicator on how you are performing."

MDE officials held outreach meetings all year to prepare its draft, which is due in September to the U.S. Department of Education.

The public comment period is open until Aug. 31.

The department will hold its first public meeting on the draft on Aug. 15 at the Amherst H. Wilder Foundation in St. Paul.

Beatrice Dupuy • 612-673-1707