The results of a single test are no longer the main way to judge academic performance under Minnesota's new education accountability plan rolled out this week.

Under the new plan, attendance joins graduation rates and academic growth as a measure for success. With this week's data release, the Minnesota Department of Education's emphasis is not on scores but on the larger number of schools that will receive extra support under its North Star accountability plan.

"Testing has always been a part of teaching and learning, but over the last two decades we have wrongly defined student success based solely on standardized tests, and our children's access to rich and engaging learning environments has suffered because of it," said Brenda Cassellius, the state education commissioner, in a news release.

Locally, several schools were pegged for state support for falling behind, while others were recognized for achievement, including for strong attendance as well as strong reading scores.

The North Star system replaces the one used under the controversial federal No Child Left Behind law and was approved as part of the federal Every Student Succeeds Act signed in 2015. The state has been operating under a waiver from NCLB for several years to avoid some of the more punitive parts of the old law.

The new system measures five things: both achievement and progress on state reading and math tests over a three-year period; progress toward English language proficiency; graduation rates; and attendance. Homing in on attendance is a way to address chronic absenteeism, a deterrent to learning and a problem nationwide.

The state uses a sort of funnel to determine where schools need help and at what level of support, with the goal of making learning more equitable and well-rounded, state officials said.

The math and reading tests kids take remain the same.

Local results

Of the 485 schools designated to receive varying levels of support over the next three years, 15 are in Duluth and surrounding communities.

No regional elementary and middle schools are among the 47 that will receive the highest level of support from the state. But three high schools - which are being assessed on graduation rates and not testing - are among 147 in the state that will get that high level of support, including hands-on help from Regional Centers of Excellence. That means the center's educators go into schools to help in areas of need. (Under the former system, very few high schools received support.)

Duluth's Denfeld High School and its Area Learning Center, and Cloquet's alternative education program are included for having four-year graduation rates below 67 percent for any group of students. At Denfeld that's students who receive free or reduced-price lunch or special education services. The rates were 66 percent and 47 percent, respectively.

That data is a three-year average, and doesn't include 2018 rates, said Tawnyea Lake, director of performance, assessment and evaluations for the Duluth district.

And a program the school is using to work more closely with black and Native American students who receive special education services showed a marked difference in outcomes, Lake said, with nine of the 10 program participants graduating last school year.

Many area schools - including Duluth's Congdon Park, Piedmont and Stowe elementaries, Proctor's Bay View Elementary and Hermantown Elementary - will receive what's called "targeted support" from the state for student groups that need it. In each of those schools the group is students who receive special education, for performing "similarly" to the lowest 5 percent of Title I schools in some areas.

New with this system, all public schools can be recognized for help or achievement, instead of only those that receive federal Title I funds.

Part of addressing the need for improved services for special education students includes offering more "core instruction," Duluth superintendent Bill Gronseth said. That means ensuring kids are getting "double doses" of instruction, from both regular classroom teachers and their special education teachers.

Bay View principal Diane Morin said she was surprised to see the school flagged again, having overcome a previous low-performing designation with state support.

The school will dig out the current issues, she said, "and do more laser-like focus on instruction."

Schools highlighted for success in any of the five measures are able to advertise that with a badge on their website. There are seven in the area, including Lester Park Elementary and Esko's Winterquist Elementary.

North Star goals

North Star was developed over the past two years through a process that included community meetings throughout the state.

Over the next several years, Cassellius said, data on course-taking, college and career readiness and school climate measures will be collected to offer a clearer picture of school quality.

Schools will be identified for support or recognition every three years. Under the new plan, Minnesota aims to have 90 percent of all students proficient in reading and math by 2025, with no student groups below 85 percent.

The different support levels for schools and wider range of performance indicators are a good change, said Andrea Roethke, managing director of strategy and operations for the education advocacy group EdAllies.

"An area we still need to improve is the public transparency piece," she said, with the public data on schools often hard for families to sift through and understand.

Minnesota, and Duluth, have long had broad achievement gaps seen with several underserved groups - including certain racial groups and those receiving special education services or free or reduced-price lunch. The new system focuses on better addressing those disparities, state officials said.

Lake said its important for families to know that the new plan is a "measure of systems" and if a student group their child belongs to isn't performing well, it doesn't mean that applies to every child.

"We have to be careful we aren't labeling whole groups of students," she said.

See the state's Minnesota Report Card at rc.education.state.mn.us for a detailed look at specific schools and districts.