State sets out new education proposals in waiver from 'No Child'

Minnesota Commissioner of Education
Minnesota Commissioner of Education Brenda Cassellius visits the Minnesota Public Radio studios in St. Paul, Minn. in May 2011. Her department submitted a waiver application Monday, Nov. 14, 2011 from the federal No Child Left Behind law.
MPR Photo/Nikki Tundel

State education officials plan submitted on Monday their application for a waiver from the federal No Child Left Behind law.

Education Commissioner Brenda Cassellius said the goal is to be freed from the current system, which she says unfairly labels schools as 'failures.'

A key criticism of No Child Left Behind is that it unfairly compares this year's reading and math scores with last year's even though a different set of students took last year's tests.

Cassellius said test scores are important, but there are better ways of analyzing those and other data to measure schools and the state is proposing a new system in its waiver application.

"We believe that this is a much better, fairer way to measure our schools," she said. "We believe that we're going to be nation-leading in this."

No Child Left Behind focuses on one goal: that all students be proficient in reading and math by 2014. Critics say that's laudable but unrealistic and they bemoan the fact that schools are measured by whether they're on pace to meet that goal. If you're not, you're labeled as 'not making adequate yearly progress,' or AYP.

Minnesota's waiver would lift the sanctions that come from not making AYP. Instead of measuring one factor the state wants to measure four. Being proficient in reading and math would still count, as it does now. New factors would be a student's academic growth, the size of a school's achievement gap and, for high schools, the graduation rate.

The highest performers would be labeled 'reward schools' — the lowest would be either a 'priority' school or 'focus' school.

"There will still be a list, but it's a much smaller list, a much more accurate list, and a much more directive list because it's multiple measures," Cassellius said.

Minnesota's application proposes replacing that goal of 100 percent proficiency by 2014 with an entirely new goal: To cut the state's achievement gap in half in six years. That's the gap between how well white and affluent students do, compared to students of color and students in poverty.

Sam Kramer with the state Education Department said the application represents a sea change. Until now, the gap has been a statewide debate, but individual schools weren't necessarily singled out for having a large gap.

"Now, those schools can get caught if that gap between their top-performing students and bottom-performing students is really wide," Kramer said.

Currently, about half of all Minnesota schools are listed as 'not making AYP.' The new list would name the lowest-performing 15 percent — about 150 schools in all.

The state isn't making that list public at this time; the federal government doesn't require the list be public, and state officials say they don't want to alarm schools that might end up off the list later. It's likely, officials say, that the make-up of the list will change after federal officials review the application.

The lowest-performing schools would work with the state to develop plans of action. Cassellius said it makes sense to focus scarce dollars on the schools found to need the most help.

Kent Pekel, with the College Readiness Consortium at the University of Minnesota, sat on a panel of stakeholders that reviewed the application and said he understands why states would want to ditch No Child Left Behind.

"But as we do that, frankly, we don't want to adopt a new one that's going to have implications that we might not have had time to sort out," Pekel said.

For all its flaws, Pekel said No Child forced every school to own up to its shortcomings because sanctions might be coming. He wonders if schools that aren't on the list will still feel the pressure, if the waiver is approved.

Roseville Superintendent John Thein said that pressure will never go away — he just likes that some of the punishments might. He said school communities will still have access to data that show where the gaps are, and they will demand answers.

"It's not going to be heaven for everybody, I can tell you that," he said.

Federal officials have said they'll let states know early next year whether they've approved their waivers.

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