Editorial: MMR system may be confusing, but more reasonable, helpful

by Joe Nathan

Potentially misleading, probably more reasonable and hopefully, helpful.

That’s how families may view a new system of accountability that was just released by the Minnesota Department of Education (MDE)  It’s called Multiple Measurements Rating (MMR).

1.Confusing: Why won’t you find some of Minnesota’s highest performing schools in the 125 top ranked “reward” list of schools that MDE just released? Because, according to Sam Kramer, Minnesota Department of Education policy specialist, they don’t receive federal Title 1 funds to serve low-income students. Kramer says, “federal law prevents us” from including schools on this list unless they are Title 1.”

Corey Lunn, Stillwater superintendent, agrees, pointing out that while “identifying succeeding Title I schools is a positive message, it also creates confusion for how schools that are not identified as Title 1 are recognized and fit into this new system. If a non-title I school is not recognized as a “reward” school, yet performing well, does this create unwarranted confusion for these families and schools?”

I’d say “yes.”

Shouldn’t Congress consider modifying this? Yes. Shouldn’t the 2013 Minnesota Legislature explore ways to honor outstanding schools that don’t receive federal dollars to serve low-income students? Yes.

2. Will the changes produce improvements? Maybe. Jay Haugen, Farmington superintendent, told me, “I applaud the decision the MDE made to put together a system that, though complex and hard to explain, more accurately reflects the success schools are having based on their unique student populations.”

Fridley Public Schools Director of Educational Services, Imina Oftedahl, commented, “The new state rating system will definitely allow us to better evaluate success with all of our students. The focus on achievement gap closure and growth are a welcome addition to the proficiency information.  However, having a single percentage score may not be meaningful to parents especially when it has so much data included in it that they don’t see.”

Bob Noyed, executive director of communication and community relations, Eden Prairie Schools, makes a key point. The information just released is not about how well students or schools did during the 2011-2012 school year that is just concluding. The results reported recently are from the 2009-10 and 2010-11 school year. This fall the Minnesota Department of Education will release results for the 2011-12 school year.

And no, this is not a farewell to the federal No Child Left Behind law that required states to establish standards in reading and math, and required schools to test students in various grades, with state reports. Minnesota still requires students in grades three-eight and in high schools to be tested. The state will continue to report results, along with graduation rates.

3. Finally, Yes, the information about schools is being released in a different way. Until this year, Minnesota schools could be on a “needs improvement” list if even one small group of students did not make required “annual yearly progress.” Last year about half of the state’s schools were on the needs improvement list.  The current system does seem more reasonable than that system which educators hated.

Each public school with more than 20 students in a “subgroup” will now receive a Multiple Measurement Rating – a number between one and 100. Those are available now for most (but not all public schools in the state).  The new system uses four factors: what percentage of subgroups in a school met their “state-wide proficiency targets,” how much growth did students make, how do a school’s low income students do compared to other students around the state, and (if a high school), did the students reach 85 percent or more graduation rate?

The state will focus its improvement efforts on schools serving low-income students that consistently have the lowest scores.

Charlie Weaver, executive director of the Minnesota Business Partnership, is concerned that in the new system, student gains weigh as much as percentage of students who reach standards.  “Businesses care not just about improvement, but whether the employees meet standards and can do their jobs,” he said.

Thanks to MDE’s Hovis and Kramer, who answered many questions I asked about the new system. I think the multiple measure system needs refinement, but will give families a broader view of what’s happening in public schools.

Editor’s note: Joe Nathan, formerly a Minnesota Public School teacher and administrator, directs the Center for School Change, Macalester College. Reactions welcome, jnathan@macalester.edu.

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