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State rolls out new accountability system for schools

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Lockers await a new school year.
The Minnesota Department of Education says the North Star system is designed to help better identify areas where schools need to improve, while supplying a stronger support system to make those improvements.
Caroline Yang for MPR News 2015

For Minnesota's educators, parents and education watchdogs, there's a whole new set of numbers to work through as the state on Thursday rolls out its newly refined school and district accountability data.

Education Department officials hope the new system — dubbed North Star — helps struggling schools much better than the Multiple Measurement Ratings it replaces.

"The old system was really a proficiency-based system only solely on one test and one moment in time," said Education Commissioner Brenda Cassellius.

School accountability measures often draw the ire of someone. Parents complain they're too complicated or convoluted. Some politicians say they don't hold schools accountable enough. Educators complain they use broad brushes to make big determinations.

Nevertheless, like homework, these accountability systems are required — in this case by federal law.

Where the old system put emphasis on a single rating that combined many factors, the new system instead looks at five areas — academic achievement, academic progress, progress among English language learners, graduation rates and student attendance.

Cassellius says by considering multiple factors North Star provides a broader, but also more detailed look at what schools are doing right and what they need to improve on.

"Now what we're able to do is look differently at the test scores, so we look at did students go from a basic level of understanding to now meeting the standards, or did they go from meeting the standards to exceeding standards," she said.

The accountability system changes were made after the federal government replaced the George W. Bush-era No Child Left Behind Act with the Obama administration's Every Student Succeeds Act. The state added its own components to accountability measures.

Along with new data reporting, the North Star system provides for a wider range of state support for schools found to be lagging in one or more areas.

Under the last data release under the old system, in 2016, the department identified 155 schools for improvement.

The new data released Thursday identifies 485 schools that will get varying degrees of state support over the next three years.

The kind of support will depend on the needs facing a particular school — those that need help for a single student group might receive some targeted training. Meanwhile, 47 schools identified as having the greatest needs will be eligible for longer-term, on-site help from state support staff.

Despite the larger number of schools in need under this system, educators like the approach.

"What we saw under No Child Left Behind was a system that was meant to shame and blame," said Denise Specht, president of Education Minnesota, the statewide teachers union.

Richard Rosivach, who teaches social studies at Irondale High School, also welcomes the change.

"You're going to really be able to get an idea for where schools are struggling and where there are going to need supports," he said. "We're not going to have a one-size-fits-all approach. We're going to be going into those schools and doing needs assessments and working with communities and families and trying to figure out how do we make this better."

Still, it will likely take some time for everyone to get comfortable with yet another school accountability system.

Andrea Roethke, with Ed Allies, a Minnesota education advocacy organization, says North Star takes several good steps forward, but she'd still like to see more clarity and transparency for parents. Community members, she said, need to be able to understand at a glance what the bottom line is for the schools within their community.

That means "making sure we are summarizing data for people in a way that is really accessible and that makes sense. And that allows them to dig deeper and figure out the nuances that matter most to them," she said.

It's been two years since the last accountability release under the old MMR system. This initial North Star data release includes calculations for schools and districts that go back several years. It can be found at the Minnesota Department of Education's website.