Assessing schools with nuance

/ 3 September 2012 / eunice

Star Tribune Editorial, September 3, 2012 – When Minnesota students return to class today, many of their schools will have different state designations than they had last year. Hundreds of schools that were called failing under federal No Child Left Behind rules will no longer bear that negative title.

For the programs that were truly unfairly labeled, that’s good news. At the same time, the new ranking system shouldn’t allow smaller pockets of struggling children to fall between the cracks. Just because hundreds of schools don’t wear Scarlet Fs doesn’t mean they should relax efforts to help underperforming kids.

Under Minnesota’s new Multiple Measurement Ranking (MMR) system, most of the state’s schools now receive a numerical ranking designed by the Department of Education. Those ratings were released last week. And the rankings are based upon how schools score in four areas — scores on the annual statewide tests, student growth, reduction on the achievement gap and high school graduation.

We’ve long argued that it’s wise to use several measures to rate a school rather than just test scores, as was done under the NCLB “adequate yearly progress” (AYP) model.

Under MMR’s numerical ranking, only 213 of the state’s 2,000 schools were considered underperforming in some way. That’s compared with more than 1,000 schools that were labeled as failing or needing improvement under AYP. And under the new rating system, only schools that receive federal Title I funding for lower income kids are eligible to receive one of five designations — Reward, Celebration, Continuous Improvement, Focus and Priority.

Schools in the last three categories must develop plans to show improvement and must set aside 20 percent of their federal poverty aid for those plans.

MMR gives parents and others a more-nuanced, clearer picture of how schools are really doing with students. It moves student assessment away from the worst of the federal provisions — using test scores as the sole measure, ignoring student progress, labeling schools and setting unrealistic proficiency goals.

Despite the public outcry for changing or repealing NCLB, Congress has been dragging its feet on revamping the law. Impatient with the lack of action, the Obama administration offered NCLB waivers to states to allow them to opt out of the federal laws, provided they replaced them with rules designed to improve achievement.

Among the priority reforms were high common academic standards, teacher evaluations tied to student achievement, expansion of effective charter schools and alternative teacher licensure — some of which have already been adopted in Minnesota.

Though it makes sense to target resources and focus attention on the largest concentrations of poorly performing kids, smaller groups of struggling kids should not be ignored. No Child had many flaws, but it did shine a needed spotlight on struggling kids in all settings — urban, suburban and rural.

Before AYP, programs where the majority of students did well could hide underperforming students behind aggregate scores. So under the new rating system, non-Title I schools must hold themselves accountable to improve learning for their most challenged students.

Generally, the new assessment is an improvement. However, the state should be sure to monitor _all schools _and expect action on closing the achievement gap.