Accelify Blog

‘No Child’ School Failures Ease Up in Minnesota (MN)

August 11, 2010

Minnesota schools have put the brakes to their slide toward failure, the latest federal testing results show.

Figures released Tuesday by the Minnesota Department of Education show that 1,048 schools — 46 percent of the state’s total — did not meet student performance targets set under the contentious federal No Child Left Behind law. That’s exactly the same number as last year that did not make what’s called their "adequate yearly progress" goals. It marks the first time since 2006 that the number of schools missing their NCLB targets didn’t go up.

That’s an improvement because targets for student passing rates on math and reading tests rise every year. Also, Department of Education statistics showed that the number of students who posted poor math and reading test scores dropped.

"I think that probably one of the expectations people had was that as the percent of students required to reach proficiency goes up each year, more schools are not making adequate yearly progress," said Minnesota Education Commissioner Alice Seagren. "But we’re holding steady [on AYP]. I’m encouraged about that, but we still have a lot of work to do."

In Minnesota, and nationwide, the NCLB mandate is that every student be proficient in math and reading by 2014. Despite this year’s results, that’s a goal most educators and many politicians view as pie-in-the-sky impossible.

Seagren said, "Regardless of whether we hit 100 percent, our commitment is that we want as many students as we can to reach proficiency." She said she has heard that Congress might decide to do away with that requirement.

Nationally there’s broad consensus to change the law because it brands so many schools as failures, and has infuriated educators. But those efforts are in limbo now, and action on reauthorizing NCLB might not happen until next year, said Minnesota Rep. John Kline, the ranking Republican on the House Education and Labor Committee.

Other Department of Education figures showed that the number of schools that are subject to penalties because they’ve continually missed their NCLB goals went up, from 283 to 342.

That means more Minnesota schools are being forced to take actions to improve, ranging from allowing students to transfer to other schools to starting up their own programs, and even firing principals and teachers.

The number of schools forced to take the most extreme corrective action — restructuring — doubled from last year’s 13 to this year’s 26. Nineteen are Minneapolis schools. Schools must get federal funding for low-income students for the penalties to apply.

"We have a lot of high poverty schools that have concentrations of special education and English-language learner students," said David Heistad, Minneapolis schools director of research, evaluation and assessment. "Those particular groups of students tend not to be performing at or abov e the standards. The standards are so high for [adequate yearly progress] now that it’s going to be difficult for any of these schools to get off the list."

Heistad said he doubts that overhauling schools is the solution.

"We’re firing principals and putting in new staff at schools, and sometimes it seems to work pretty well," he said. "Other times there’s no evidence that it works. It has a very disruptive effect on the whole city as you’re bouncing staff around from school to school."

‘No Child’ debate rages on

While this year’s results could represent a glimmer of hope for Minnesota schools, they’re not likely to dampen the debate over the much-maligned NCLB law. It’s become a campaign issue in the gubernatorial race. Democratic candidate Matt Entenza said he would pull Minnesota out of NCLB, even though that could cost the state $231 million a year in federal school aid, according to Department of Education figures.

No Child Left Behind has been a thorn in the side of educators since it became law in 2002. Originally backed at the national level by both leading Democrats and Republicans, NCLB aims to use testing goals to force schools to ratchet up student performance.

A special emphasis was put on raising test scores of students who historically have lagged in school performance: low-income, racial minority and special education students, as well as students with limited English-language skills.

States are allowed to set their own academic standards against which test scores at various grade levels are measured. That makes it hard to compare Minnesota to other states.

Schools are judged annually not only on their overall tests scores, but on test scores for various populations within the school. If any such group fails to meet testing improvement goals, the school is judged to have fallen short of its goals.

That means many schools that typically post high test results — such as west suburban schools — can miss their targets. Some schools in such well-to-do school districts as Edina, Orono and Eastern Carver County failed to meet their AYP targets.

‘We take the kids we get’

At Bluff Creek Elementary School in Chanhassen, Principal Joan MacDonald chalked up the school’s failure to meet its test goals to low-income and non-English-speaking students’ struggles with math.

"We take the kids we get, with the skills and abilities that they have," MacDonald said. "It’s our job to take them from where they are to where they need to be."

Minnesota legislators periodically, and unsuccessfully, introduce bills to either sweep away or alter the federal law. Gov. Tim Pawlenty has historically supported the law.

Kline said he expects changes in what constitutes school failure, but he would not speculate what direction that change might take. Though there are parts of NCLB Kline said he would like to stay, he said the current criteria for failure are too draconian.

"You’ll get to the point, where virtually, by definition, every school will be failing," he said.