Minnesota problem-school criteria narrowed

/ 20 May 2012 / jennifer

Megan Boldt, Pioneer Press, May 20, 2012 –

Remember that highly publicized watch list of Minnesota public schools failing to make adequate progress toward math and reading goals?

It’s gone. Instead, Minnesota education officials on Tuesday, May 22, will unveil a much smaller list based not just on test scores but also on other measures of student growth. And every public school — those on the list and those not — will be assigned a score of 0 to 100.

The new system could generate as much controversy as the old one. While supporters say it’s a better way to determine whether schools are doing a good job, others argue it reduces consequences for schools that are failing and doesn’t make it easier for people to judge schools.

“Is this system more complex or simpler? I think you could argue both ways,” said Kent Pekel, head of the College Readiness Consortium at the University of Minnesota. “There are more measurements to determine school success, but then you’re boiling school success down to a single number.”

Minnesota has released an annual watch list since 2003, as required by the No Child Left Behind Act. Under the federal law, schools are judged on whether students’ test scores reach a level considered “proficient” in math and reading.

But Minnesota is one 26 states freed from NCLB requirements, allowing the state to move forward with a new accountability system. Proficiency still counts, but so does improvement in individuals’ test scores and narrowing a school’s achievement gap between students of color and their white peers. High schools also are judged on their graduation rates.

“I think parents should be happy that they’re getting more information,” said Mary Cecconi, executive director of Parents United for Public Schools, a St. Paul-based organization. “Instead of dumbing things down for the public, I think we need to recognize the complexity of the issue of school success.”

The list will include 254 schools, much smaller than previous watch lists.

Last year, 1,056 schools — about half the schools in Minnesota — were on the list for not making adequate yearly progress toward proficiency. Of those, 442 receive federal Title I funding to educate higher concentrations of low-income children, so they could face sanctions.

The new list will identify just Title I schools in three categories based on data from the 2009-10 and 2010-11 school years. The 127 highest-performing schools will be designated “reward schools.” Forty-two schools making up the bottom 5 percent will be “priority” schools, and 85 schools will be dubbed “focus” schools for their achievement gap.

The low-performing schools will be on a state watch list for three years. Priority schools must develop plans to restructure their programs to improve performance. Focus schools must come up with programs to raise achievement for the student groups that are struggling.

Sam Kramer, the state’s specialist on federal education policy, said state education officials are most excited about naming reward schools.

“For the first time ever, we have a group that’s being recognized because they’re doing well,” he said. “These are schools that have higher rates of poverty and student mobility, but they’re getting great results with growth and closing the achievement gap.”

The schools that are doing well can serve as models for those who are not, Kramer said.

“Helping a school that is struggling requires a lot of work and some really great strategies,” he said. “And No Child Left Behind hasn’t offered that support. It showed us where there were achievement gaps and handed out labels and some money but stopped at that.”

Hundreds of Minnesota schools — some perceived as excellent schools — will escape the failing labels this year. Under the old system, many were labeled as failing because small groups of students didn’t make enough progress in reading or math.

That worries some of the state’s business leaders.

So does a provision that underperforming schools won’t have to offer supplemental services such as school choice and private tutoring.

“If a bunch of schools are off the list now, what’s the impetus to close the gap and do better?” asked Jim Bartholomew, education policy director for the Minnesota Business Partnership. “We have a new system that reduces consequences and takes away options for low-income families. We’re skeptical but ultimately hope it works.”

But as educators and researchers point out, private tutoring under NCLB is not working. A study done by the Center for American Progress and the American Enterprise Institute for Public Policy Research found it had little effect on student achievement.

Research shows students need at least 40 hours of tutoring to improve. But with some private tutoring companies charging Minnesota districts up to $80 an hour for services, many students are receiving only half of the minimum recommended help because there is no money for pay for more.

Cecconi said if middle- or upper-income families were paying someone $50 an hour or more to tutor their child and they weren’t seeing results, they’d pull them out of the program. Continuing with a program that doesn’t work is deceiving, she said.

“I don’t call that empowering; I call that lying,” Cecconi said. “More-affluent parents wouldn’t stand for that. So why is it OK for low-income families?

Megan Boldt can be reached at 651-228-5495.

Follow her at twitter.com/meganboldt.