Minnesota schools ponder new progress standardsAs No Child Left Behind is made optional, many officials welcome a new approach to measuring students’ performance.
By: Jana Hollingsworth, Duluth News Tribune
Minnesota will release results today showing which school districts met state educational standards — a week after President Obama announced he will allow states the chance to free themselves from No Child Left Behind mandates.
Minnesota will apply for a waiver, meaning that today’s AYP results might be the state’s last.
That doesn’t mean districts should ignore this year’s results — or abandon the idea of holding its schools to high standards, Brenda Cassellius, commissioner of the Minnesota Department of Education, said Thursday.
“We must follow the law,” she said in a phone call with members of the media, “and the guidance is to do whatever you need to do with how you are categorized and sanctioned.”
School officials have said for years that the process of determining whether schools have met “adequate yearly progress” is flawed because it’s based on one-size-fits-all mandates.
Esko Superintendent Aaron Fischer said No Child Left Behind guidelines have made his district work hard to align its teaching to state standards, and to go beyond those standards.
“It’s helped our system, but we’re looking for testing that looks more at growth and for quicker results to individualize instruction,” said Fischer, whose Esko district is one of the rare ones to have met AYP standards every year.
“We all need accountability, but I would want a measure that is more fair … and allowing us to do things to better prepare kids for the future,” Fischer said. “We need to move out of bulk groupings and have a more empathetic approach.”
The pass-fail grade of AYP is based partly on scores on the standardized MCA II tests in math and reading. The state also measures a district’s graduation and attendance rates. Failure by any sub-group of students on any test means failure for the entire district.
Schools can make significant improvements in specific areas from one year to the next but still not meet AYP.
“If you’re looking at holding schools accountable for high achievement, this isn’t the best way to go about it,” said Tawnyea Lake, director of assessment, evaluation and performance for the Duluth school district.
Last year, Duluth failed to make AYP and was found in need of corrective action.
Not meeting AYP can mean financial sanctions and can lead to school restructuring and a choice to transfer schools.
What No Child Left Behind has done for the Duluth school district, Lake said, is put an emphasis on studying data for each student.
“I’m certain we would be doing this anyway. … Individual student progress over time is key,” Lake said. “Are they growing from where they started?”
The White House said last week that No Child Left Behind encouraged states to set low standards and tailor their curriculums to increase success on tests. But, the White House acknowledged, it has also highlighted lower levels of achievement among certain groups of students.
“It’s a good idea to be thinking about how every child can succeed,” said Diane Rauschenfels, an associate professor in the education department at the University of Minnesota Duluth. “But implementation (of No Child Left Behind) has been fraught with difficulties. To be able to get every child up to, say, Algebra II — that might be a difficult task for students who have a low ability all across the board.”
The program did show districts their weak areas and achievement gaps, Rauschenfels said.
“To have states be able to determine a continuous improvement plan for their school districts is going to be well worth everyone’s while,” she said.
States that receive waivers no longer will be required to have every student proficient in reading and math by 2014, which was the original goal of the 10-year-old No Child Left Behind law.
To be approved for a waiver, states must develop plans that prepare students for college or careers. They must focus on interventions for low-performing schools and reward schools that make progress, and find ways to better evaluate and support teachers. Many of the things Obama outlined are things that Cassellius said Minnesota is already doing, and will strengthen. The “burdensome mandates” would be removed.
“We know that many of our schools are being labeled on what we consider to be a flawed system,” she said, and the state will not lower standards or lessen accountability. “We’ll look at accountability systems and how we want to measure those outcomes. One hundred percent by 2014 is not the annual measured outcome we want to have for our state. We want those to be realistic.”
Cassellius said said last year’s math test was more rigorous than the year before and increasing numbers of schools will fail to meet standards. Still, she said, the state doesn’t want districts to ignore sanctions.
“I don’t want to assume we will get a waiver,” she said.
States that don’t apply or that fail to receive a waiver will remain under current law.