More MN schools missing federal marks; officials reluctantly release list

A report that has come to be known as the 'list of failing schools' is available today.

This year, 1,056 of Minnesota's 2,255 schools were not on track to meet Adequate Yearly Progress, a basis for measuring school performance in meeting requirements of the federal No Child Left Behind law.

More than half of Minnesota's high schools, and two-thirds of middle schools and junior highs did not make adequate progress. Forty-five percent of elementary schools did not make adequate progress.

The report details which Minnesota schools did and did not meet the AYP measurement. State officials are trying to be freed from several mandates from No Child Left Behind, including the announcement of failing schools.

But the federal government has not yet acted on the request, and state officials are reluctantly releasing the list today.

No Child Left Behind has one large, overarching requirement: That all students read and perform math at grade level by 2014.

AYP tracks the progress schools make towards that goal. The basis for measuring school progress comes from students' scores on the MCA standardized tests. As the 2014 deadline approaches, fewer schools are expected to make sufficient progress because the goal is unrealistic, critics say.

MINNESOTA SEEKING WAIVER

The number of Minnesota schools failing to make adequate progress could have been higher because the state started using a newer, harder math test this year, said Education Commissioner Brenda Cassellius. But officials were allowed to account for that change.

Cassellius argued there shouldn't even be an AYP list.

"We really wish we were not in the position of having to label our schools this year," Cassellius said.

Last week, the Obama administration announced it would free states that seek a waiver from the 2014 goal as long as states show they will still have a strong system for measuring schools. Minnesota will apply for that waiver, and officials hoped for a response before having to release a new list of so-called 'failing schools' this year.

But the state won't hear the federal government's response until early 2012, and Cassellius said that means, for now, the schools must follow the rules of No Child Left Behind, still in effect.

"We can't just work in the future. We need to work in the present," Cassellius said. "And this is what the present is."

POSSIBLE ACTIONS

Not making AYP for two consecutive years triggers sanctions. Schools must develop improvement plans and offer families options, such as free tutoring for students or the choice to transfer to another school.

Letters detailing those options are usually sent to parents before the start of school. But this year's letters were delayed until today, partly because of this summer's state government shutdown, and partly because the state told schools to wait, in case a waiver was granted.

Because the school year has already begun, the state will allow students to switch schools at the semester break.

Moorhead Area Public Schools Superintendent Lynne Kovash offers an example of how AYP requirements confound schools. She points out the district has three elementary schools: Ellen Hopkins, Robert Asp, and S.G. Reinertsen. This year, Ellen Hopkins and Robert Asp didn't make AYP and must offer students the option of changing schools. A problem with the rules arises because S.G. Reinertsen also didn't make AYP, and the law requires students to move to a school within the district that is making AYP.

"In the letter, we have had to say, 'One of the options is school choice, but we do not have a school in Moorhead that's making AYP, so you can't," Kovash said. "Those are the kinds of flaws in the system that don't make sense."

In other words, Moorhead must offer school choice, except when it can't.

Hopkins Public School District Superintendent John Schultz said AYP is complicated already without having to also explain this year's delay in getting out results and the pending waiver. Five of his six elementary schools did not make AYP.

"We'll have to explain that this is where schools are at," Schultz said. "Is it frustrating for us, as administrators and communicators? Absolutely, it's frustrating."

But Schultz said he thinks the people in his district understand the schools aren't necessarily failures just for being on the list. The bigger goal, he said, is for the state to obtain the federal waiver and institute a new system for accurately measuring school performance.

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