More Minnesota schools not meeting standards

Graphic: AYP performance
(Click to enlarge) Nearly half of Minnesota schools failed to meet their Adequate Yearly Progress goals in 2009. Schools that do not meet the goals in consecutive years face corrective measures or even restructuring.
MPR Graphic/Than Tibbetts

Nearly half of all schools in Minnesota did not meet the yearly progress they were supposed to under the federal No Child Left Behind law, according to new numbers from the state Education Department.

The designation means schools will have to take a range of actions, depending on how long they've been on the list. And even those that did meet the goals this year say they probably won't for much longer.

Last year, more than 900 schools did not meet Adequate Yearly Progress -- performance goals based on test scores, attendance and graduation rates. This year, 1,048 made the list -- the first time the number has topped 1,000. It works out to almost exactly half of the state's schools.

Schools that don't meet AYP are often referred to as "failing" -- a term you won't hear Education Commissioner Alice Seagren use.

"I think the importance about NCLB is that, for the first time in many years, we have set goals for ourselves -- as a state, as schools, as districts -- and said it's not right for children to pass from grade to grade and tell them they're OK, and then end up in high school not ready for a career or college," she said.

Scores from this spring's MCA-II standardized test are entered into a computer and split into 38 different groups. Everyone is in at least one of the groups, which include math and reading scores among different races, special education students, English language learners, and those on free and reduced lunch.

It only takes students in one of those groups to miss the goal to put the whole school on the list.

There are fewer high schools on the list this year, but more elementary schools.

In fact, 487 -- nearly half of all the schools that are on that list -- are only there because they failed in just one of the 38 groups.

Rosemount Senior High, for example, has a good academic reputation, but is not meeting AYP because students on free and reduced lunch didn't meet this year's goals in math.

John Lindner, who analyzes scores for the Rosemount-Apple Valley-Eagan district, says the label is both bad and good.

"There's definitely a feeling that sometimes it doesn't feel fair," he said. "But the plus is we now have this data, and we can hopefully work with this data in a way that will improve education."

One concern with being pegged in just one subgroup is that it will force a school to focus on those students, only to have another group fall through the next year.

"It ends up being like the boy putting his finger in the dike," noted Bruce Bergeson, principal of Montevideo High School, which did not make AYP. "The minute you plug up this leak, another leak is happening over here and you run out of fingers."

Being on the list for two or more straight years triggers mandatory actions meant to improve instruction. Schools could be forced to divert money for outside tutoring, pay to bus students who transfer, or even replace staff.

The most drastic stage is restructuring, which 13 schools entered this year. That's up from four last year. This year's class of restructuring schools includes Edison High and Roosevelt High in Minneapolis, and Arlington High in St. Paul.

There were, however, a few dozen schools that improved enough this year to be taken off the list, including Mankato West High. Even so, principal Brian Gersich isn't celebrating too much.

"We're not on the list, but it might not be by much," he said. "And we have to continue to focus our time and energy in those areas. We're not setting up the ticker tape parade because we're not on it this year. We could very well be on it next year."

Gersich says he hopes parents remember that plenty of schools on the list are of the highest caliber. In fact, he thinks every single school in the state is doomed to a spot on the list if the No Child Left Behind law doesn't changed.

That change might be on the way. NCLB is up for renewal and Congress is expected to take up that debate later this year.

David Heistad, the head data analyst for Minneapolis schools, says he thinks the law will change to increase emphasis on how much each student improves each year, even if that student started with very low proficiency.

It's a change Heistad says would save many schools in his district from the label of "failing."

"We'll still have tests and they'll still be given every year, as far as I can tell, so you can measure growth from one year to another," said Heistad. "But I think the dynamic around labeling schools as 'failing schools' is going to change."

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