Data released on school achievement, progress; Austin Public Schools identified in needing of support from state

Published 8:23 am Thursday, August 30, 2018

With the release of a new accountability system to depict a more in-depth look into school performance by the Minnesota Department of Education, the exact measurement of achievement and progress continues to paint partial pictures.

The new North Star accountability system looks to paint a broader picture of how schools in Minnesota are performing, according to the Minnesota Department of Education (MDE), which indicated a shift away from gauging district performance on standardized test scores and other factors.

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“For over 20 years, we have relied far too much on test scores as the sole measure of school performance,” said Education Commissioner Brenda Cassellius. “This misguided approach has resulted in a status quo that has not only skewed the perception of how our schools are doing, but has narrowed and limited opportunities for students to experience a rich and well-rounded education.”

The MDE recognized 526 public schools as top performers in different areas of school performance, and using this system was a way to create more equitable and well-rounded learning opportunities for all students statewide. The agency released its data on Thursday, where the state prioritized 485 schools that will receive different levels of support for the next three years.

Under North Star, Minnesota will prioritize the highest level of comprehensive support to 47 schools working to improve across multiple measures, and 147 high schools with graduation rates below 67 percent overall or for any individual student group.

Schools prioritized for comprehensive support will work with the state’s Regional Centers of Excellence with experts working with school leadership teams to assess unique challenges and needs facing educators and students in a given building.

Center staff provided specific support to schools in areas including support to English learners, equity, graduation, implementation, math, reading and special education. More targeted support will be given to 157 schools that may need to focus on a single student group or may need support on just some of the measures. Another 134 schools will have access to additional training and networking from the MDE.

Austin Public Schools was one of those identified districts that was in need of support from the MDE, according to the data. In short, the data was a way of looking at school district and student performance that was relative to accountability, according to Corey Haugen, director of research evaluation and assessment.

“We’re in Austin, and we service a large diversity of students from all walks of life and the world,” Haugen said. “We are committed to meeting students where they are and when they come to us. We might not have made the bar overall at the static finish line, but when we take it to the next level, we made progress and our goal, regardless, is to help students grow.”

Under No Child Left Behind (NCLB), states were required to label schools in different levels of challenges based on a narrow scope of student proficiency on standardized tests. Education experts say that North Star was a shift from NCLB and focuses on different aspects.

School districts received little support to make systemic changes that could bring positive results for students, and so the state developed a more coherent accountability system when the federal government approved the state’s NCLB waiver in 2012, followed by the adoption of a state accountability plan, according to the MDE. The plan requires districts to annually align their budgets and improvement strategies to common statewide goals.

Former President Barack Obama signed the federal Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) in December 2015, which was the country’s new pre-K through grade 12 federal education law and replaced NCLB, which allowed states to develop systems and policies that placed focus on equity and continuous improvement for all students.

For two years, MDE worked with stakeholders and consultation with Minnesota’s 11 sovereign Tribal Nations to create the state’s ESSA plan, resulting in North Star’s creation, and the U.S. Department of Education approved Minnesota’s plan in January 2018.

North Star’s process is a stage-based approach to school accountability using five different indicators:

•Academic Achievement Technical Specifications

•Progress toward English Language Proficiency Technical Specifications

•Academic Progress Technical Specifications

•Graduation Rates Technical Specifications

•Consistent Attendance Technical Specifications

The MDE stated that the North Star process would help reflect the state’s commitment to equity and confront disparities experienced by students who had been traditionally underserved, including students of different racial and ethnic backgrounds, English learners, special education students and those who qualify for free or reduced-priced lunch.

There’s a three-stage process that’s the base for most identifications. Stage one looks at math and reading achievement and progress toward English language proficiency. Stage two looks at math and reading progress in elementary and middle schools, four-year and seven-year graduation rates in high schools and all four of those indicators in districts, while stage three looks at consistent attendance.

Under the new system, every public school district in Minnesota is held accountable in contrast with about 50 percent of schools receiving federal Title 1 funding. Schools demonstrating success on the five key measures will be recognized yearly with badges for their district website, and will also be recognized for their work support students.

The ESSA would require that all states look beyond test data to offer more in-depth understanding of what’s happening in the classroom.

“Testing has always been a part of teaching and learning, but over the last two decades we have wrongly defined student success based solely on standardized tests, and our children’s access to rich and engaging learning environments has suffered because of it,” Cassellius said. “We are putting testing into its proper place by using it as one piece of important information alongside other data that, together, shine a bright light on a school’s quality or a student’s experience. Over the next several years, we plan to expand our data systems that collect course taking information, college and career readiness, and school climate measures. This will give us a better picture of school quality than what current data are able to provide.”

Yet John Alberts, educational services executive director, felt that this only painted a “narrow slice” of the work that’s being done in the district and simplifies complexities of the overall district and the various walks of life that come through the school doors.

“I don’t underestimate the challenge that’s provided by our state and Legislation to do this,” Alberts said. “Trying to take a system and apply it to a highly complex and variable diverse population. …it does pose some interesting problems on the interpretation. We can see the hard work of our staff, we are working to meet students where they’re at and moving toward future success.”

Overall, the district said that the results were what it was expecting and would continue to focus on working with students individually to meet them where they are at.

“We might not get it in one year or two,” Haugen said. “We’re not at the same starting line. We saw our district meet the threshold they needed to meet, and we’re moving our students in that process. Growth is really a focus.”

What’s next for Austin Public Schools is to attend a session with the MDE regarding the identification on Sept. 29.