Minnesota presses new plan to grade school performance

Minnesota is moving to change the measures it uses to judge school performance, the newest steps in a decades-long quest to measure student success.

State officials have drafted a plan that would evaluate schools on five factors: state test scores, how many students move up a level on state tests, graduation rates, progress for students learning English and school attendance.

The plan would flag the lowest-performing schools, which would then need to develop improvement plans the state would monitor.

Schools, however, would not receive the single, yearly scores many parents are used to seeing. While many of the evaluation metrics remain the same, they wouldn't be combined into an overall grade.

The Minnesota Department of Education expects to seek federal approval for the plan in September, following a 30-day public comment period.

Department leaders say the changes will help raise achievement and eliminate disparities. Skeptics, though, warn it will lower the bar by doing away with a single, publicly-reported school score.

"I don't think the current proposal provides enough information to the public," said Andrea Roethke, director of the education advocacy group Ed Allies.

While the system is "pretty effective" for identifying low-performing schools, parents and communities "just kind of end up with a whole list of data and no good way to make sense of it," she said.

The current proposal comes in response to the 2015 Every Student Succeeds Act, a federal law that arrived more than a decade after the 2002 federal No Child Left Behind law, which pressed states to evaluate and grade schools based on student test scores.

These kinds of measurements have become increasingly important, if not completely understandable. The public pays attention to school ratings. Schools perceived as high performers draw new kids and parents.

Ratings also dictate how the state hands out extra money and support to schools. Under the proposed system, for instance, low-performing schools would get increased staff training and access to regional specialists. They would also be eligible for state grants.

With all the change around accountability, schools have had a two-year reprieve from identification for low performance. No new schools were identified last year, and ratings aren't being handed out this year.

Bloomington Public Schools research, evaluation and assessment director David Heistad said the extra school data the state plans to release would be helpful, but his district will continue to use locally-administered tests and other metrics to monitor schools.

"I'm more interested in really having actionable information," Heistad said.

Heistad said he does want a statewide system to highlight successful schools. State officials plan to develop that method over the next year. A new data-reporting system designed to make information about schools more accessible is also planned, though still under development.

Education advocates are eager for the details.

"What we've really done ... is just determine who the losers are and shine a light on those. And we really haven't seized the opportunity to shine a light on effective practice that we ought to be learning from and trying to share across the state," said Kent Pekel, president and CEO of Search Institute, an education research nonprofit.

Pekel cautioned that well-meaning though state plans may be, the upcoming gubernatorial election makes them uncertain. "When somebody wins an election that has a different vision," he said, "things can go in a dramatically different direction."

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