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School accountability measure headed for more change

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The latest accountability scores designed to identify low performing schools were released with less fanfare than usual Thursday by the Minnesota Department of Education.  And because the accountability system is poised to undergo changes, no new schools were added to the state's lists of schools labeled "focus", "priority" or "continuing improvement" this year.  

Some school leaders say the current measurement isn't useful, and they're eagerly awaiting an overhaul.  

The Multiple Measurement Ratings system, or MMR, is designed to show how a school is doing in one number. Every Minnesota school gets a score from 0 to 100 based on four categories: test scores, progress on tests, graduation rates, and progress closing the achievement gap.

Schools get a separate score showing how students of color are doing compared to white students. The state labels the lowest-performing 25 percent of schools, which have to write plans and get help from the state to improve.  

Some may consider the numbers useful because they are an easy way to compare schools. But among school leaders, the reaction to these numbers was mixed.  

"Honestly, we don't put a lot of stock in that because of the complexity of the calculations," said Richfield superintendent Steve Unowsky. His district does its own data crunching of state test scores, district-level tests and those given in classes instead.

  Don Pascoe, the director of research, assessment and accountability for Osseo Area Schools, usually isn't surprised by the scores because they depend on data that has been out for months. But Pascoe appreciates the statewide perspective.  

"It gives us the opportunity to call another school, another district and say, 'Wow, we were looking at this and we saw this. What are you guys doing?'" 

  Helpful or not, the way schools are measured in Minnesota is about to change. The current system was the 2012 replacement for parts of the federal No Child Left Behind law. It was supposed to be a more nuanced way to hold schools accountable, relying on multiple factors instead of just test scores. Now the federal law has changed, so states have to re-write their systems.   

It's high time for a re-write, said Kent Pekel, president and CEO of the Search Institute, an education research nonprofit. Pekel was on the committee that helped develop the current system. He says it turned out to be too complex: when schools got their scores back, they weren't sure what they should do to improve.  

"I think that this new opportunity Minnesota has is just wildly important because as much as some might wish it could be the case, people will pay attention to however schools are ranked in this new system," Pekel said.

  State education commissioner Brenda Cassellius said the system could use some tweaks, and her department is exploring what changes should be made.   

"The current system is a good system to measure the growth and proficiency," she said. "I just believe strongly there's better ways to report that out to parents so it's easier to understand."

  It's unclear how much of Minnesota's plan will change under the re-write since much of the current system already lines up with the new federal law. One thing that will be different — a more meaningful measure of "school quality". 

  Elaine Salinas, who leads a group that works with American Indian students in Minneapolis and other districts, hopes the added measure includes culturally relevant curriculum. 

"Are the young people sitting in the seats in the classrooms at that school, are they reflected in the curriculum of that school? Does the teaching force reflect the diversity of the student body?"

With two re-writes in about five years, there's been a lot of change lately in Minnesota school accountability. Richfield superintendent Steve Unowsky said the amount of change is telling.  

"If we had a successful working system, I don't think we would change it. So I think the largest evidence that things aren't working exactly as designed is that the system does keep changing," Unowsky said.

  The deadline for new proposed state plans is in 2017. The Minnesota Education Department said it's going to continue holding meetings to gather feedback on the changes.