Brynaert used softer style to help reform school testing: Mankato legislator retiring after eight years in House

/ 7 October 2014 / Shawna
54306a833b368.imageDan Linehan, Mankato Free Press, October 4, 2014

When Kathy Brynaert joined the Minnesota House, in 2007, she experienced something of a culture shock.

Accustomed to working on a seven-member school board that largely collaborated, Brynaert found herself among 134 representatives trying to sort out a recent power transition.

Democrats had taken control of the House, and there was angst around working out the pecking order.

“I started out like a deer in the headlights,” she said.

Brynaert eventually learned that 2007 was not a typical year, though she also learned to live with some stress.

And she found a place away from the grandstanding speeches of the floor.

“What I came to realize is the real work is done in committee,” she said. “I came to love the committee because you could dialogue and ask questions, especially about what the research said.”

That was a distinctive part of Brynaert’s style, said Charlene Briner, chief of staff at the state education department.

“She was not like the hammer. She was very collaborative, she was very thoughtful,” Briner said.

Brynaert combined the soft touch with a preference for hard numbers.

“Her consistent desire to have research be the driving force for policy was unparalleled,” said Mary Cecconi, executive director of Parents United for Public Schools, an advocacy group.

Brynaert’s specialty was education, early childhood through high school, with a focus on which tests students should take and what educators should do with the results.

When she leaves the Legislature in January after eight years, most of the state’s testing reforms bear her fingerprints. Brynaert never called a news conference, though that’s not to say she didn’t make news.

First-year jitters

Brynaert’s first experience in education testing policy came in the early ’90s, when she joined the Mankato school district’s assessment committee. In 1995, she began her first term on the School Board, where she served between 1995 and 2006.

In 2006, 20-year Mankato legislator John Dorn announced his retirement. Brynaert won the seat by a 22-point margin.

She carried education legislation from the start but didn’t make it onto an education committee during her first two years. That wasn’t necessarily a failure, considering how much she had to learn.

“I didn’t really see the whole puzzle for a year or two,” she said.

Brynaert also had to adjust her expectations. When she walked onto the House floor, she was expecting great debates, but the upheaval caused by the Democratic takeover created an unusually adversarial environment.

“It wasn’t a collaborative process,” she said in her characteristically understated way. At times, the Legislature isn’t collaborative like a bullfight isn’t collaborative.

Even at the contentious Capitol, though, she turned her non-confrontational style into an asset.

“More people work with you if you create less rancor,” Brynaert said.

Changing dialogue

Meanwhile, she was changing some of the discussion around testing, said Cecconi, the public school advocate.

“The prevailing culture — and it’s just changed around the last couple of years, much due to Kathy’s work — was that we should assess children and teachers based on test scores and only test scores,” she said.

One of Brynaert’s focuses was to incorporate student growth into the assessment model.

What matters, in other words, isn’t just how much a student knows. It’s also important to know where they started.

If a seventh-grader reads at a sixth-grade level but started the year at a fourth-grade level, then he made great progress even if he’s not proficient.

As Cecconi put it: “There’s certain schools that will never reach proficiency, but what if they’re making two years of growth? Why would we write those schools off?”

Not a lot of legislators were talking about the growth model before it passed in 2009, she said.

“The political tenor was the opposite,” Cecconi said.

Brynaert shares the credit, along with University of Minnesota researchers and others on the Minnesota Assessment Group.

Multiple measures

To receive an exemption to No Child Left Behind, the state in 2012 implemented a so-called “multiple measurements rating” to broaden what defines a successful school.

This system effectively replaced the student growth model Brynaert helped develop.

Though this system was devised by state officials, Briner, the education chief of staff, said Brynaert’s work was a necessary first step.

“It’s fair to say her work was pretty foundational to Minnesota’s pursuit and success of (the NCLB exemption),” Briner said. “People have to be ready to do something different.”

School testing was also a legislative issue that year, as GOP Rep. Branden Petersen proposed a teacher rating system that relied on students’ test scores for half of the rating.

Brynaert was not in favor of attaching a number on how to use the test scores in evaluations. At the time, there was no “meat on the bones” of how the teacher evaluation would work, she said.

After the 20-day state government shutdown in July, a compromise set test scores as 35 percent of a teacher’s evaluation. It took some time to get this model into practice, and this is the first year that every school district is responsible for having a teacher evaluation model.

No more grad test

The last major testing reform that Brynaert helped pass may have been the most controversial. It eliminated the requirement that high school students pass a test to graduate.

Instead, it replaced that test with a college- or career-readiness test, such as the ACT, that advocates believe will be more helpful to students.

Cecconi said the old high-stakes tests didn’t actually help students and were only taken seriously because of their graduation requirement.

“Instead of looking at the reliability of the test, they were trying to make it relevant by upping the stakes,” she said.

Others, especially Republicans and the business community, worried that these changes would devalue a high school diploma.

Brynaert said she’s not worried if Republicans reverse this or any other of the reforms she helped pass. After all, she said, they were never her bills, really.

“The Legislature owns that work and then the people own that work,” she said.

Brynaert plans to stay involved in education, including on a few task forces, though the vegetable and flower gardens behind her west Mankato home beckon, as well.