MARSHALL - On Tuesday, Minnesota school districts got their first look at a new education accountability system developed by the Minnesota Department of Education as part of a waiver from No Child Left Behind, a decade-old system that a number of area administrators are more than happy to leave behind.
The new Multiple Measurement Ratings (MMR) for schools across the state is expected to provide a more fair and accurate measure, especially when it comes to determining whether schools are adequately serving minority students and students who are receiving special services, than the one-size-fits-all mandates that NCLB featured through its Adequate Yearly Progress measurement.
"AYP was pretty black and white," Marshall Superintendent Klint Willert said. "You had a performance target you were trying to meet. If you met it, great. If you didn't, the school was met with sanctions accordingly."
Nearly half of the 2,255 schools in Minnesota failed to meet the NCLB benchmark in 2011. Rather than labeling schools as failures, Education Commissioner Brenda Cassellius said the new MMR system helps raise the bar and improve student achievement for every student.
Under the new system, all schools are given an annual MMR which has four components: proficiency, student growth, achievement gap closure and graduation rate. Using data from 2010 and 2011, the MMR is generated by dividing the total number of points earned by the total number of points possible. For most elementary and middle schools, 75 points are possible. For most high schools, there are 100 points possible.
"I like the fact that the state put forward the effort to look at multiple factors," Willert said. "Obviously, much like the old model, proficiency is still very important. But growth is also an important component. That's what we and other school districts have been advocating for many years."
Along with an MMR, every school will get an annual Focus Rating (FR), which measures proficiency and growth of minority students (American Indian, Asian, Black and Hispanic students) and students who are receiving special services (free and reduced lunch, special education and English Learner students) in an attempt to close the achievement gap.
"Minnesota's waiver has a strong emphasis on closing the achievement gap," Willert said. "Minnesota has one of the most-pronounced achievement gaps in the country."
Through a webinar offered on Thursday, Sam Kramer, federal program educator at MDE, pointed out that education in Minnesota is very good, which is part of the reason for the large disparity. Minnesota students have some of the highest ACT scores in the country, he said, and have performed well on NAPE scores as well. But on the other side of the spectrum, the seven subgroups are lagging behind the white students and those who are not receiving special services.
"We know that when you flip those NAPE scores upside down, that we have one of the biggest achievement gaps in the country," Kramer said. "The biggest goal of the waiver was to reduce the achievement gap. The new system helps in two ways. It creates a theory of action for closing the achievement gap and allows us to measure our success on that theory of action."
While the previous goal under NCLB was to achieve universal proficiency in math, reading and science by 2014, the new system under the waiver looks to reduce the achievement gap by 2017. There are many ways to do that, Kramer said.
"One way would be for our higher performing students to do worse," he said. "One of the reasons that Minnesota has the highest achievement gap in the country is because our high performing students do really well. But that's not the way we want to close the gap."
Kramer stressed that the MDE wants to see all of the state's students growing and succeeding. And for students who are behind the current education leaders, their pace has to be quicker in order to reach the same level of success.
While 70 percent of Minnesota schools were not given designations, the other 30 percent were. Using the MMR, 127 schools were designated as reward schools, which include the highest-performing 15 percent of Title I schools in the state. Around the area, Clarkfield Charter, Lake Benton Elementary, Milroy Elementary and Wabasso Secondary schools ranked in the highest category.
"It's nice to be a reward school, but I think there's still way too much emphasis on the standardized tests," Wabasso Superintendent Ted Suss said. "It's always better to be identified in a positive way than a negative way. I find it ironic, though, that we were in AYP the last two years and now we're a reward school with the same teachers and with the same curriculum."
While discouraged about the time spent preparing for and conducting testing, Suss believes that the new waiver process is a step in the right direction.
"It's an improvement within a flawed system," Suss said.
Across the state, there were also 42 schools that received a priority school designation, reflecting 5 percent of the most-persistently low-performing Title I schools in the state. No schools in the area were in the bottom sector.
The FR was used to assign 85 schools to a third category, focus schools, representing 10 percent of Title I schools that are making the biggest contribution to the state's achievement gap. Bert Raney Elementary School in the Yellow Medicine East district was identified as a focus school.
"I think the distinction to make is that under AYP, schools were essentially labeled as failing, whereas here, we're identifying the schools that need the most help and from Day 1, the state is going to be with them on the turn-around plan," said Keith Hovis, MDE communications director. "These schools are going to have the full backing, resources and support of the department which was not always possible under the former system. Marshall Public School didn't have any school fall into any of the three categories."
"I was real satisfied with the results, though we still have some ongoing opportunities for improvement," Willert said.
"One thing our community understands is that we're always seeking out those opportunities for improvement, while at the same time, celebrating our successes."