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Big Increase in Number of Schools Missing No Child Goals

Ohanian Comment: Does anyone really believe that 3 times as many schools this year are "failures" as were "failures" last year?

The number of underperforming schools in Minnesota more than tripled on the list released today by the state Department of Education.

This year's numbers showed 472 schools not meeting federal and state testing goals, compared to 143 last year. Much of that increase comes from new listings of high schools and middle schools, which were judged on test scores for the first time.

This year's underperforming schools list includes 144 high schools, 94 middle schools, 124 elementary schools and 106 alternative schools. Forty-nine charter schools are included in those numbers.

In addition, 150 school districts did not meet their goals for "adequate yearly progress."

Fifty-five schools improved enough to get off the list.

Low test scores posted by special education and non-English-speaking students were factors that pushed many schools on to the list, said new state Education Commissioner Alice Seagren. Seagren announced the results this morning at a press conference at the State Fair with Gov. Tim Pawlenty.

She pledged to work with the federal government to give schools more flexibility. The law now requires schools to meet testing goals not just for the whole student body but also for specific subgroups: students in specific racial groups, poor students, special education students and those not fluent in English. Schools must meet their test score goals for students as a whole and in each subgroup, or they wind up on the list.

Star ratings, too

The state is required to identify underperforming schools under the federal No Child Left Behind law. The law also requires states to issue report cards for all schools.

Those report cards were also released at the fair for the second year. They feature star ratings that award schools up to five stars for academic quality.

This year, said Seagren, an error in the mockup of the new report card released in July led at least one school district to calculate its own star ratings incorrectly. The district, Stillwater, went public with its ratings before today's official release.

The error on the mockup had no bearing on the star ratings released today. But a clearly vexed Pawlenty noted that the state Legislature created a waiting period specifically so such errors could be corrected before the ratings go public.

So why care?

The list of underperforming schools was expected to balloon this year. Last year, high schools were judged to be underperforming only if their graduation rates were too low. Middle schools got tagged as underperforming if their attendance was too low. But, this year, those schools are also graded on test scores.

Because secondary schools are so much larger than elementary schools, more of them have enough students to require counting in the specific subgroups.

Schools put on the list this year face no immediate consequences. And schools that aren't designated as Title 1 schools face no federal sanctions. Only 5 to 10 percent of Minnesota high schools are considered Title 1 schools.

So why should they care?

"I think the incentive is the public information out there telling the public that some student groups are not doing well," Seagren said.

But schools that do receive Title 1 funds and have been on the list before face a series of steps that range from providing extra services to a complete restructuring of the school if they continue to struggle.

This year, for the first time, eight chronically underperforming schools will be subject to what's called Phase 3 sanctions. School districts must work with Phase 3 schools to devise a plan to improve test scores. In addition, they must continue using Title 1 money to transport students who want to go to other schools and provide additional study services for students.

Opponents of the list also showed up in force at the fair today. They include representatives of teacher, parent and school administrator organizations. They charge that the tests used to identify underperforming schools measure information that students might no longer be learning. That is because the tests are not completely in sync with the new academic standards schools are supposed to adopt this year.

Norman Draper is at ndraper@startribune.com.

— Norman Draper
Star Tribune


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