ST. PAUL — After making some modest changes, the Minnesota Department of Education submitted a new plan Monday, Sept. 18, to the U.S. Department of Education for how state officials will ensure all students receive a quality education.
The new school accountability system is required under the Every Student Succeeds Act, or ESSA, which was approved by Congress in 2015 to replace the controversial No Child Left Behind law. Minnesota’s proposed new system uses a mix of existing and new measurements that state leaders hope will give the public a clear view of schools’ successes and challenges.
“I want to thank the teachers, school leaders and community members who contributed to shaping this plan,” said Brenda Cassellius, state education commissioner. “Together, we have created a roadmap that will lead us to better outcomes and opportunities for every child in Minnesota.”
State education leaders spent a year writing the plan, a process that included about 300 public input meetings across the state. A draft was released in August and revised after a month of public feedback.
How it will work
The result is the “North Star Excellence and Equity System,” which will use test scores, student academic growth, graduation rates, attendance and other measures to measure school outcomes.
The state’s most struggling schools will receive coaching from the state’s “Regional Centers of Excellence,” which are expected to support between 300 and 400 schools once the program is in place. The regional centers currently help about 85 schools across the state improve their performance.
State education leaders have set ambitious goals, calling for 90 percent of students to be proficient in math and English by 2025. They also want high school graduation rates to reach 90 percent by the same year.
Praise for ‘nurturing’ attitude
The new accountability system has received praise from parents, teachers and education advocates for its commitment to providing all students with an equitable education and its focus on giving more control to local school leaders.
“I really appreciate Commissioner Cassellius’ for having such an open and thorough process when writing the plan,” said Denise Specht, president of Education Minnesota, the state teachers union.
Specht added that she hoped the “test and punish” era of No Child Left Behind would give way to a more “nurturing” attitude toward students and schools. “That’s a good thing and we are hoping that is the way it ends up,” she said.
Reformers raise concerns
Yet many education advocates continue to have concerns about the direction Minnesota is heading. Those concerns range from the lack of overall grades — which make it easier for parents to understand school performance — to the continued focus on test scores as a primary measure of student achievement.
Daniel Sellers, executive director of Ed Allies, an education reform advocate, says the new “North Star” system’s lack of summative ratings means it will be tough for families to get a clear picture of how well a school is performing. Sellers also is critical of the “funnel system” the state has designed to identify Minnesota’s most struggling schools because he fears it may not uncover all the schools that need help.
“A parent should be able to know: How is my kid likely to do at a school?” Sellers said. “That is one of our biggest concerns, right now the data cannot be explored in an understandable way.”
State leaders are expected to soon begin crafting a system to report accountability results to families.
What can’t be measured
On the other hand, educators like Specht worry about the continued focus on the academic achievement tests students take annually in elementary and middle school and once in high school. The new system does give schools some credit when students demonstrate partial academic proficiency, but it also considers those who opt-out of tests as not meeting state standards.
Specht says things like music and art also help make schools great and can’t be measured with a standardized test.
“If we believe those things are good for kids, and that’s what an excellent education looks like, then let’s develop a system that considers that,” she said.
The U.S. Department of Education has 120 days to review Minnesota’s ESSA plans.