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Duluth weighs in on Every Student Succeeds Act

More schools across the state will receive academic help under the proposed new accountability system under the federal education law.

The Minnesota Department of Education, including commissioner Brenda Cassellius, visited Denfeld High School Wednesday night to talk about the new plan and get feedback. Required by the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) — which replaced No Child Left Behind — the plan must be submitted to the U.S. Department of Education for approval in September. It would be in effect for the 2018-19 school year.

Comparing ESSA to No Child Left Behind, the department's Michael Diedrich explained how the law was less punitive and wasn't about making schools "testing factories."

The plan emphasized a well-rounded education, he said, and not just reading and math, although those two subjects are required by law to remain as the two used to gauge proficiency.

All schools will be evaluated — not just those receiving federal funding, as has been done in the past. Schools will continue to be evaluated on achievement on tests. Elementary and middle schools will also be evaluated on progress over time and high schools on graduation rates. There will also be evaluation on progress toward English-language proficiency and attendance. The last indicator stems from a federal requirement that one measure look at a non-academic area. Much attention has been given to improving chronic absenteeism, because of how it affects student performance.

Test participation will also factor into scores, as federal law requires 95 percent participation. Students who don't take the Minnesota Comprehensive Achievement test will count as not proficient.

The lowest-performing 5 percent of Title I schools will be identified, as well as any other public school with underachieving student groups.

Between 300 and 400 schools are expected to be identified for help, Diedrich said, out of a possible 2,200. With the most recent accountability system, about 85 schools were identified for some level of support.

Superintendent Bill Gronseth said that he's "encouraged" that a broader view of students will be taken, but expects it to be a challenge financially for the state to reach all of the schools that need attention.

Also of note: Under ESSA, any public high school in the state with a graduation rate below 67 percent overall or for any student group will be identified for support. In Duluth, that would mean Denfeld, which would qualify because of the graduation rates of several groups, and not because of its overall rate.

Cassellius said high schools had been "ignored" under the past system.

Gayle Kelly, executive director of the Minnesota Head Start Association in Duluth, said she was "frustrated" that there was no indicator of achievement levels below the third grade.

"I want to see something bold that really looks at readiness," she said, because without that, it's hard for schools to know what they are dealing with and to be prepared. "I don't see where Pre-K gets much attention."

Duluth School Board member Alanna Oswald asked how illness would be considered under the attendance indicator, and how sick kids would be discouraged from going to school once attendance plays a role in accountability.

Cassellius said it's up to school boards to make "common sense" policies, and that once schools identified for help assess their needs, they can figure out where the problems are and address them.

Sharon Witherspoon, a member of the Duluth school district's Education Equity Advisory Committee, said the plan seems more equity-focused than prior plans, but that much of it seems like "rephrasing" what once was. In Duluth, she said, it's already known what schools show gaps in achievement.

"The data is already there," she said. "Are we doing the same old thing and getting the same old results?"

Andrea Roethke of EdAllies, a Minnesota education policy advocacy group, said a concerning part of the plan is how much is left to the future. It's not clear how high-performing schools will be identified, how a school's well-roundedness will be measured, or how the public will learn how schools are doing, she said.

"That's our biggest concern with the plan; that there is not a lot there in terms of public transparency," Roethke said.

Diedrich said that's something that will be worked on over the coming year.

The state education department visited several cities across the state, and is already considering changes based on feedback, Cassellius said, including looking into reverting to paper and pencil for the state tests instead of using computers, which has been problematic for many schools. She said that would require a change in state law.

The new plan — which emphasizes closing the achievement gap — says the state will close gaps by reaching a reading and math achievement rate of 90 percent proficient, with no student groups below 85 — by the year 2025.

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