Board dazed and confused by new school waivers

/ 25 April 2012 / jennifer

Steve Brandt, Star Tribune, April 25, 2012 –

Minneapolis schools board members got their first detailed look Tuesday night at life under the state’s waiver from the No Child Left Behind law.

The staff briefing left some board members scratching their heads like middle-schoolers after their first brush with algebra.

“I can understand none of it,” said board member Hussein Samatar, “This sounds like mumbo-jumbo from the state that does not want to hold schools accountable.”

Kim Ellison, another board member, said she’d previously listened to a two-hour state presentation on the change, and still doesn’t get it.

“There are a million questions,” board member Richard Mammen added.

“I think the top of my head just blew off about halfway through your presentation,” the board’s Carla Bates added.

Here’s a translation of what state and district experts in the waiver said: Instead of one rating for how many students achieve proficiency in a discipline, a school will be scored on four equally weighted measures: One is how its racial and other subgroups measure in proficiency tests against statewide targets. Another is whether a school’s students on average registered more growth on proficiency tests than others who started at the same point. The third is whether the growth by its lower-performing groups of students topped growth statewide by higher-performing groups, reducing the achievement gap. The fourth is the percentage of subgroups making target in graduation rate, whether figured over four, five or six years.

Points earned on those measures will be folded into all schools being ranked on a 100-point scale. Next month, new labels based on those scores will be bestowed by the state on half of the roughly 850 schools in the state that use federal Title I funds for disadvantaged students, the only ones for which the feds have attached strings. The bottom 5 percent, about 43 schools, will be called priority schools and need to work with the state on a turnaround plan. The six Minneapolis schools and 13 others in Minnesota already getting federal school improvement grants automatically make the list. Another 85 or so lagging schools contributing most to the state’s achievement gap will become focus schools that have to develop an improvement plan using state assistance. The top 125 or so Title I schools will become reward schools. That’s based on 2010 and 2011 data. Once 2012 test scores are available, more labels will be added by fall.

According to state and district officials, the new regimen based on a waiver granted by the feds sheds the unrealistic goal of 100 percent proficiency set for 2014 by No Child Left Behind. The new goal is closing half of the achievement gap in six years. They also posit that using multiple measures of school performance is fairer, especially for schools where students make big growth in knowledge even if they don’t reach proficiency. Schools won’t have to set aside their Title I for corrective measures if they don’t measure up.

But board members weren’t buying much of it They’re concerned that only low-performing schools will get slapped with a new set of labels that will confused parents atop the NCLB and district terms. They complain it will be hard to get off the state’s list of low-performing schools.

Sam Kramer, a state education policy specialist, is used to the confusion and feedback after making the rounds of the state for months to explain how the state waiver will work. Sounding like a patient teacher, he tried to untangle board confusion. He added later that as state educators get used to the new approach, they’re asking better questions than two months ago that show they understand how the waiver works.

“We recognize it’s complicated,” he said.