Minnesota releases new school ratings

The Minnesota Department of Education released new ratings today to gauge student achievement in an attempt to accurately portray school performance -- something the No Child Left Behind law failed to do, officials said.

Exam time
Students work on a biology exam at Duluth Central High School in 2006. Statewide scores for student achievement will be released today. (File / News Tribune)

The Minnesota Department of Education released new ratings today to gauge student achievement in an attempt to accurately portray school performance -- something the No Child Left Behind law failed to do, officials said.

The state applied for and was granted a waiver from federal mandates such as having 100 percent of students proficient in reading and math by 2014.

The ratings released today (see accompanying story and chart) are a result of a new accountability system, and one of the main goals is to narrow the disparity, or achievement gap, between test scores and graduation rates of white students and students of color.

The new system removes the "failing" labels that nearly half of the state's schools wore last year. Instead, the state will target a smaller group of lowest-performing "priority" schools where immediate change will be expected.

"This is the first time we really had an opportunity not to use a stick but a carrot," said Sam Kramer, who works with federal programs for the state Education Department. "Previously you did or didn't make AYP (adequate yearly progress); no one celebrated you. Now we have reward schools."


Schools that receive federal Title I funding --with large proportions of low-income students -- are the only schools that can receive a designation under the new system. Those designations are:

  • Reward schools, which are the highest-performing 15 percent of Title I schools. The state named 127 today.
  • Focus schools, which are the 10 percent of Title I schools most responsible for the state's achievement gap. There are 85.
  • Priority schools, which are the 5 percent most persistently low-performing Title I schools, of which there are 42. The new system takes into account school performance in three or four categories: proficiency, growth, achievement gap reduction and, in the case of high schools, graduation rate. Another measure -- the focus rating -- gauges proficiency and growth of minority students and students receiving special services, such as English-language learners, special education students and those receiving free or reduced-price lunch.

    "We think it's a better measurement," Kramer said. "AYP was a black-and-white way of looking at accountability. In the real world, there's a lot more complexity within schools: a thousand shades of grey."

    Schools that receive a priority designation start a turnaround process. The school will work with its district and the state to come up with a plan set to begin next school year "that will seriously approach change within the school," Kramer said. "This isn't tinkering around the edges. It's changing the way the school operates."

    That could mean evaluating teachers and principals, developing "professional learning communities" and looking at how time is spent at a school. On the extreme end, it could mean replacing teachers and principals, Kramer said.

    "It's going to be different at all 42 schools," he said.

    Focus schools will do much of the same, but the plan will be centered on the subgroups that aren't performing well and could include things such as curriculum changes. As for reward schools, they will be studied to see what they are doing well and what can be shared with other schools.

    "And they get to have a big celebration," Kramer said. "Talking about who is doing well is meaningful in and of itself."

    Esko Superintendent Aaron Fisher said he appreciates that there are more ways to follow student achievement, but questioned that only certain percentages are labeled.

    "Only so many schools can be reward schools," Fisher said. And some schools might need extra help but won't be in the specific percentage targeted, he said. "The system will leave some people out."

    The answer to that, Kramer said, begins in August when two more classifications will be rolled out: "celebration schools," or the 10 percent below the "reward schools" and "continuous improvement schools," which would be the bottom 25 percent in the state.

    To be removed from the priority or focus schools list, schools must stay out of the bottom 25 percent for two straight years. Priority and focus schools will be named every three years and reward schools will be named annually.

    "No Child Left Behind was about absolutes," said Bill Gronseth, superintendent of the Duluth school district. "The new way is based on growth and to celebrate growth. Goals are more attainable. The old measurement identified schools inappropriately. We had schools in the top 1 percent in proficiency identified as not making AYP."

    The AYP designation was based on one test on one day and didn't account for growth, said Tawnyea Lake, director of assessment, evaluation and performance for the Duluth school district.

    "We know from internal data there is growth for all," she said, "but now within the system we are recognized for it."

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