In 2007, more than one in every three Minnesota schools didn't make what the law calls "adequate yearly progress", or AYP. That's the highest number since No Child Left Behind was signed into law in 2002. But some of the schools on that list say they shouldn't be there.
"Bottom line is this. We tested 96 percent of our kids, the target is 95," said Dan McKeon, director of TrekNorth, a Bemidji charter school. "We exceeded the target, we made AYP, and the state is not willing to acknowledge that."
TrekNorth ended up on the list of schools not making AYP because the state says it didn't test enough of its students. For schools to make adequate yearly progress, their students must score high enough on standardized reading and math tests, and they must test at least 95 percent of their students. TrekNorth did that, yet it's still on the list, McKeon said. And this is a big deal to his school.
"Bemidji is fortunately full of quality schools. And so there's no hiding the fact that we compete for students," McKeon said. "We, I think by many measures, would be a school that is making not just adequate progress, but commendable progress. And none of that progress seems to matter when we're labeled by the state as not making adequate yearly progres."
TrekNorth has 160 students in grades seven through 12. Every student takes advanced placement classes, and each one participates in an outdoors program that allows them to go hiking, canoeing and rock climbing.
The week after school started, a group of 10 students were packing up for a four-day trek along the Superior Hiking Trail in northern Minnesota. The trip leader, Alison Drietz, also happens to be the school's testing coordinator. Drietz has been trying to figure out if she did something wrong that led to the school not making AYP.
"Every day, I go back and forth, where I think, oh, we goofed up, we did something wrong," Drietz said. "But then the next day, I'm thinking, oh, no, they goofed up."
Drietz said she did exactly what the Minnesota Department of Education told schools to do. Earlier this summer, she went to a Web site called SchoolHouse, run by the company that does testing for Minnesota. She fixed all the errors in student data that were listed in a discrepency report.
But when the AYP results came out in August, showing that not enough TrekNorth students took the test, Drietz discovered errors in the data for several students whose names never showed up in the discrepency report. The school appealed to the state, citing the data errors, and figured the appeal would be granted, TrekNorth director Dan McKeon said.
"It seemed obvious, like a short putt in golf, it just seemed easy. And so I never really got a thorough explanation of why the appeal was denied."
State education officials say they didn't deny the TrekNorth appeal. But they say after looking at the student records in question, they still found inconsistencies, and the school fell just short of the number of students required to take the math test. Education officials fault TrekNorth for making mistakes when entering the student data. And regardless of the errors, if TrekNorth had gotten every other student to take the test, it would have made AYP, assistant education commissioner Christy Hovanetz-Lassila said.
"To single in and focus on one or two students that would have made the difference for you for participation, you still have four percent of the other students that weren't tested either."
But in a small school like TrekNorth, one or two students can mean the difference between making or not making AYP. And TrekNorth isn't alone. Nearly 100 Minnesota schools didn't make adequate yearly progress this year because the state says they failed to test enough students.
One reason for the high number is that the state toughened the requirements for schools to demonstrate that enough students took the test, education officials say. In the past, the department calculated that participation rate based on how many tests a school ordered, and how many it returned. But education officials say some schools tried to game the system, ordering too few tests so it looked like all of their students took the test.
So this year, the state looked at how many students were enrolled at the time of the test, compared to how many tests were returned. That meant it was crucial for schools to send the state correct student data, so that students' names could be matched with their test scores. The department's director of information technology, Cathy Wagner, said the department found fewer than one percent of tests were mismatched.
"We're pretty convinced that we've got a really small amount of noise in the whole system," said Wagner. "Which doesn't do anything for a particular school if you're part of the noise, I realize, but in general, I think we had a very valid system, and I think we had good participation by districts and schools."
That explanation doesn't mean much to officials with the Thief River Falls school district. They say every single special education student at Franklin Middle School took the test, yet the state said some of them didn't.
"I was very upset. I was livid. And I am typically a very positive person!" said Carol Ihle, who is in charge of testing for the Thief River Falls district.
"In our appeal letter, we had demonstrated that all of these students had taken the test, we had faxed the state department copies of the paper tests," Ihle said. "So we really felt that it was kind of a done deal."
Yet the appeal was denied, and Franklin Middle School showed up on the list of schools not making adequate yearly progress. State officials say someone at the school failed to hit "submit" to save and send the test scores of the students in question. If the tests are found at the testing company, it's possible the school's AYP status could change, after the department does an audit in November.
Education officials acknowledge they received more complaints about data problems this year, due to the new requirements. The number of appeals from schools and districts doubled this year, and about three-fourths of the appeals were denied.
Minnesota Public Radio News talked to two schools who didn't file appeals, yet they believe they should have made AYP. The schools are Bellingham Elementary School in southwestern Minnesota, and a Twin Cities school that didn't want to be named for this report because it's trying to resolve the matter with the education department.
Bellingham officials say every single student took the test, and at the other school, all but one. Officials at both schools say they didn't think they'd have a problem with the participation rate, so they didn't realize they needed to appeal their AYP status until it was too late. If schools didn't file an appeal, they're out of luck, the education department's Christy Hovanetz-Lassila said.
"Unless they've submitted an appeal, I would say no," said Hovanetz-Lassila. "We made a very concerted effort through SchoolHouse to encourage them to update their data, it's a 30 day window just as it has been for the past five years."
Hovanetz-Lassila said there is one circumstance that could change a school's AYP status if the school has already filed an appeal. In the case of Westwood Elementary School in Prior Lake, a box of third-grade math tests was sent to the wrong location at the testing company. Because the tests weren't counted, it looked like not enough students took the test.
Education officials say when the tests are scored in November, that could remove the school from the list. But for Westwood Elementary and other schools on the list, the damage to the school's image has already been done. Hovanetz-Lassila said that makes it even more imperative for schools to do everything correctly.
"This maybe sounds a little bit harsh. But they made a mistake," said Hovanetz-Lassila. "They sent the test box to the wrong place. They didn't do the right thing. There's nothing we at the department can do about it right now. And so it is unfortunate, and it is very inconvenient for them, but they made the mistake."
The message to schools is clear. If they make any errors in this highly-complicated system, they run the risk of not making adequate yearly progress. And the stakes are high. If schools don't make AYP for a second year, then federal consequences kick in.