No Child Left Behind overhaul challenges Minn. educators

Empty school in Brooklyn Center
The halls of Brooklyn Center High School. The federal government will rule on Minnesota's request for a waiver from No Child Left Behind early next year.
MPR Photo/Tom Weber

With changes on the horizon for the No Child Left Behind, Minnesota education officials want to change the manner by which schools are measured, but don't yet know how that will take shape.

The Obama administration signaled last week that the George W. Bush-era law as we know it is on its way out, a victim of state complaints over its one-size-fits-all approach to education reform

Yet for all its flaws, even critics say No Child Left Behind helped correctly focus the education debate on the fact that students who are affluent or white outperform students in poverty and minority students.

In Minnesota, education officials want to change the manner by which schools are measured but don't yet know how that will take shape.

The goal of the original law is to educate every student to proficiency in reading and math by 2014. But the Obama administration said last week that states won't have to meet that mark. They can opt out of the law, but must apply to the federal government for a waiver to do so.

"On the one hand, you could say it was a delusional goal, but nobody can say it was a bad goal," said Kent Pekel, who heads the College Readiness Consortium at the University of Minnesota. He helped St. Paul schools implement No Child Left Behind last decade. It is to be seen whether Minnesota will craft a better replacement, he said.

"To say 'we're going to break from the past and find something new when you have not yet defined what's new, it's a risky proposition," Pekel said. "People don't know exactly what they're signing on to."

State officials say ten years of lessons from No Child Left Behind will help them shape the new system. Testing is here to stay, but taking action from the interpreted results could be subject to change.

"There's got to be a better way than putting all of our eggs in this one basket of a high-stakes test that just gives us a snapshot in time, and then labels the school for a year or more as not making the grade," said Charlene Briner, a state education department spokesperson. Schools must currently meet a benchmark called Adequate Yearly Progress. AYP is measured in Minnesota largely with MCA standardized test scores.

Not meeting AYP triggers financial sanctions and other mandates, including having to offer families the choice of transferring schools.

That's the major flaw of the system, said Matt Mohs, with St. Paul's district accountability office.

Accountability encourages investment and improvement, as opposed to essentially what the current system suggests, which is flee, Mohs said.

State officials also want to dump that AYP list, saying the unfair labels should end. They want a new system that still has goals and sanctions, but also flexibility on how to implement them.

States that get waivers will have three choices: Push back the 100 percent proficiency goal from 2014 to 2020; Promise to cut within six years the achievement gap by an amount to-be-determined; Or design their own system of measurement. All three options are under consideration, state officials said.

In return, states must show their standards will prepare students for college or careers. They will also have to focus resources on lowest-performing schools. Briner said that's a better option than the current system, which directs resources to all schools on the AYP list, even though system all but assures every school will one day be on the list.

"When we're in a time of scarce resources, we need to really look at maximizing those resources," Briner said. "If we can get a bigger bang for our buck by targeting schools with a greater percentage of under-performing kids, we think that's a good use of the dollars."

In practice, it will be up to states to develop formulas that identify two tiers of schools: The lowest performing five percent, followed by the next lowest 10 percent. Separate action plans also will be developed for improving schools in each tier. Schools in the lowest tier will be considered "priority schools," and those in the next tier will are "focus schools."

Determining the lowest-performing schools will require a new formula. The AYP formula relies heavily on a single test given once a year. Critics note the test compares current fifth graders to the previous year's. They say the new formula should include multiple measures, such as the progress a student makes in a year, and potentially others, such as graduation rates, attendance, percentage of students taking college-level classes. All remain up for debate.

With that potential, officials should not overpromise that the new will fix everything that's wrong with the old, Mohs said.

The federal government will rule on Minnesota's request for a waiver early next year. However, another list of failing schools will be released on Friday.

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