Minnesota's struggling schools are becoming more concentrated in the Twin Cities, according to the state's accountability data.
Under a measure that combines test scores, graduation rates, student academic growth and the achievement gap between white students and students of color, Minneapolis and St. Paul saw an increase in the number of schools with low rankings.
Under the Department of Education's ranking system, the lowest performing schools are eligible for help from state education experts. But neither district plans to fully tap into the state's assistance.
The system only ranks Title I schools, which are eligible for federal education funds because they have a high number of low-income students.
Now in its third year, the Multiple Measurement Ratings system was designed as an alternative to the federal No Child Left Behind program.
State officials say it's a better system because it doesn't punish struggling schools, but rather helps the Department of Education identify those that need the state's help.
Schools in the bottom five percent in terms of academic achievement in the state are called "priority" schools. The bottom 10 percent of schools struggling with the achievement gap are called "focus" schools.
There are 155 schools in those two categories. See the list of schools here.
The schools can receive help from experts at the education department's six Centers of Excellence throughout the state. That help comes in the form of teacher and principal training, and guidance on data analysis.
Minnesota's education commissioner Brenda Cassellius credits that help for improving many of the state's struggling schools over the last three years.
"We know this system is working. We know that those [schools] that are focused on an agenda are seeing greater success than they did in 2011," Cassellius said. "And that is promising."
In 2012 ACGC Elementary in Atwater was given the priority label because students in the K-4 school weren't making enough annual academic progress.
"That was a shock to our system," said Sherri Broderius, superintendent in the Atwater-Cosmos-Grove City district.
After the shock wore off, the school began to work with state education officials on teacher and principal training, Broderius said. Teachers also learned to dive deep into student data.
"Even drilling down to where this student is struggling or succeeding in reading or math, by the week or the month," she said.
ACGC elementary is now off the priority list, and has made enough progress to be considered one of the state's so-called reward schools and is being used as a model for other schools.
The school was even named a National Blue Ribbon School by the U.S. Department of Education this week.
Schools that fall among the state's lowest rankings aren't required get help from the state like ACGC Elementary did.
Both the Minneapolis and St. Paul districts, which saw an increase in the number of struggling schools in the state rankings this year, have opted to go it alone, for the most part.
In St. Paul, 30 schools now fall in the two categories that make them eligible for state help — 12 more than last year.
"We're very concerned and it certainly raises our urgency to tighten up supports for those schools," said Christine Osorio, the district's chief academic officer.
Osorio said the district has a plan to help those schools, with a system that's identical to the state system.
"Their model provides strong support for database decision making, leadership team development and coaching inside of schools and that's exactly what we're including in our plan as well," she said.
While St. Paul won't use state experts in its schools to help with the work, Osorio said the district is in frequent contact with the Department of Education to make sure the district's plans align with how the state operates.
That's the same approach Minneapolis is taking.
This year 39 Minneapolis schools are considered struggling to the point that they qualify for help from state experts, five more than last year.
Superintendent Bernadeia Johnson said she's not afraid to ask the state for help. But Johnson says she has experts of her own.
"What we're saying is 'Thank you for your suggestions. Help us model that with our own team so we can have sustainability,'" she said.
Johnson said she's disappointed with how her district did on the latest state rankings, but hopes recent changes in the district office will help.
Just a few weeks ago she assigned some of the district's top staff to spend more time working with the district's lowest performing schools.
Denise Specht, the head of the state's teachers union Education Minnesota, said the latest release of school rankings show troubling results for schools clustered in the state's high poverty areas.
"That tells me Minnesota must find better ways to meet the special needs of these students," Specht said. "Which could mean more training for the educators in the building, additional support staff like counselors and librarians, or even offering the broader range of mental and physical health care treatments found in full-service community schools."
Specht also cautioned parents from relying too much on the rankings to determine how well schools and teachers are doing.
Recently there's been growing worry among some teacher and parents that students spend too much classroom time preparing for, and taking, assessments tests.
Daniel Sellers, executive director of the education reform group MinnCan, said the results of the MMR rankings show just how important test scores like the Minnesota Comprehensive Assessments are.
"I worry that any attempts to get rid of standards-based assessments takes away an important piece of data that we have to determine whether or not we're on track for closing our achievement gaps," Seller said.
Your support matters.
You make MPR News possible. Individual donations are behind the clarity in coverage from our reporters across the state, stories that connect us, and conversations that provide perspectives. Help ensure MPR remains a resource that brings Minnesotans together.