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Published May 22, 2012, 05:10 PM

MN Tests Alternative to 'No Child Left Behind'

MINNEAPOLIS (AP) — Minnesota recognized 127 schools Tuesday for their good work in closing achievement gaps and designated 127 others as needing extra help for developing turnaround plans.

By: Steve Karnowski, Associated Press

MINNEAPOLIS (AP) — Minnesota recognized 127 schools Tuesday for their good work in closing achievement gaps and designated 127 others as needing extra help for developing turnaround plans.

The Minnesota Department of Education released the first set of school ratings under a new alternative to the federal No Child Left Behind program. Minnesota won a waiver from the strict requirements of the federal program in February in return for developing a more flexible system that's less dependent on test scores for determining whether schools are adequately serving poor and minority students.

Nearly half of Minnesota's 2,255 schools failed to meet the No Child Left Behind benchmarks in 2010. Many of them faced potential penalties that included forced staffing changes and expensive requirements to provide free after-school tutoring or busing to better schools.

Education Commissioner Brenda Cassellius said the new system is a fairer and more accurate way to hold schools accountable.

"Rather than relying on a failed system that doled out punitive labels and didn't tell the whole story about schools, today we're recognizing our highest-performing schools and making a commitment to stand behind those schools most in need," Cassellius said in a statement.

No Child Left Behind relies on one high-stakes annual standardized test of academic proficiency to determine whether a school is making adequate yearly progress. Minnesota's new Multiple Measurement Ratings approach looks at four categories: academic proficiency, student growth, progress in closing achievement gaps, and graduation rates.

The new system evaluates only the performance of Title I schools — those where at least 40 percent of students qualify for free or reduced-priced lunches, a common measurement of poverty.

The highest-performing 15 percent of Title I schools in the state, or 127, were named "reward schools." The 10 percent of Title I schools doing the poorest on Minnesota's achievement gap, 85 in all, were designated "focus schools." And the bottom 5 percent of the most persistently underperforming Title I schools, 42 in all, were designated "priority schools."

The state will work with the priority and focus schools on plans to improve them, while holding up the reward schools as models of what works for others to emulate.

The Minneapolis school district had the most focus and priority schools — 23 and 13 respectively — but it also had two reward schools.

Jill Stever-Zeitlin, chief of strategic partnerships and policy for the Minneapolis district, said the new system is a better way to measure school performance because it includes more measurements than No Child Left Behind. She said the rankings provided no surprises because Minneapolis was already using its own methodology to try to better gauge which schools needed more investments. She also said there's room for improving the system because some schools that fall short of proficiency targets still aren't getting as much credit as they deserve for making progress.

St. Paul had 15 focus and 2 priority schools with one reward school.

The change resulted in better rankings for St. Paul's public schools and a more focused list for which schools need help, said Matt Mohs, acting chief accountability officer for the district. The waiver also frees up more resources for schools that need them the most, he said. So he said his answer is a "qualified yes" as to whether the new system is an improvement, but he'll be interested to see how it evolves.

"The state is being very purposeful in trying to switch away from a culture that was heavily punitive into one that's more supportive of schools that need improvement," Mohs said.

The Mankato, Minnetonka and Wayzata districts were tied for the most reward schools at four apiece.


Copyright 2012 The Associated Press.

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