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Minnesota education secretary says rating system tough, it will help teachers

Minnesota Commissioner of Education Brenda Cassellius, wearing a Cardinals T-shirt, speaks Thursday with fourth-grade teacher Lee Gauer, not pictured, in the hall outside the Willmar Education and Arts Center auditorium. Gauer said he asked about funding for English Language Learner programs. Cassellius said she is working to make ELL funding a priority. Tribune photo by Linda Vanderwerf

WILLMAR -- The state's new method of measuring student achievement has become more complex, but it should yield more useful results for teachers.

Brenda Cassellius, Minnesota's commissioner of education, discussed the new Multiple Measurement Rating system Thursday when she visited Willmar.

Cassellius spoke and answered questions at the Willmar School District's staff welcome gathering Thursday at the Willmar Education and Arts Center. Tuesday is the first day of school.

The commissioner admired the Cardinal red T-shirts worn by members of Education Minnesota, and soon there was a T-shirt handed up to the stage. She finished her talk wearing the T-shirt over her floral-print dress.

Cassellius urged the teachers to do their best to be supportive of every student, even the "smarty pants" ones who may be tough to like.

Keep trying, she said, "because those kids have probably had a number of years of people giving up on them. ... You never know when that effort will pay off later."

Some people may have thought Minnesota would get a pass on accountability testing when it received a waiver from the federal No Child Left Behind law. "Actually, it's a bit tougher," she said.

The federal government still requires that schools be ranked and that they be held accountable for students' performance, Cassellius said.

The new system will provide growth projections for each student, giving teachers a better measure of how their methods are working and where they and their students may need extra attention.

"Everybody should be accountable for every single kid," she said. "I think that's what we get under this score."

The old system measured achievement from one year to the next, and the new one includes measurements of growth, achievement gaps and graduation rates.

When the focus was on achievement only, Cassellius said, some schools did very well. However, with the broader measurements now used, their ratings may have fallen.

"Teachers for years have said, 'Measure us on our growth,'" Cassellius said. "We're doing that."

The new system compares students statewide. "It's a much more rigorous way to look at schools, so that every student is compared to the state average, not necessarily what's happening within your school."

It's more difficult to meet graduation targets now, too, Cassellius said. They must count the number of graduates who finish in four years, and each subgroup has its own target. Before, schools were judged on their overall graduation rates.

"We need every kid graduating, every kid coming across the stage and getting a diploma, she said.

If the state doesn't change its requirements, students in the class of 2015 who don't pass a required math test for graduation could be denied diplomas, Cassellius said.

This year, 44 percent of white students did not pass the test, and 80 percent of African American kids didn't pass. "It's a really hard test," she said. "If we start denying diplomas, they can't go to college or get a job or join the military, and I don't know what their opportunities in life will be."

Half of the states don't use high school exit exams, she said. "I have no research to point me to the fact that exit exams can predict college success or that they make a difference in a student's achievement." Students pass classes taught by qualified, licensed professionals for 13 years before being approved to graduate, she said.

Cassellius suggested the several million dollars spent to develop and administer graduation tests could be spent instead on early childhood programs, she said.

Minnesota did not relax its standards or change its tests when it received the NCLB waiver, Cassellius said. The state is in the top 10 on national standardized testing, she said, but "we know when you flip that, ... we're at the bottom for all states."

The achievement gap has always been a challenge for the state, she said, and the new system should help districts and teachers address it.

"It's absolutely essential economically for us to be sure that every single student is doing well for our communities to thrive," she said. "More importantly, and we know that as teachers, because we didn't go into this for the money, it's morally the right thing to do."

Cassellius said she and Gov. Mark Dayton intend to do all they can to ensure fair and adequate funding for public schools.

In response to questions, Cassellius said Dayton and she are committed to funding for early childhood education, because it can lead to greater achievement for those children in later years. She said she's an example of that, as she attended Head Start as a child.

It can be difficult to convince legislators that funding should be available for all-day, everyday kindergarten, reducing class sizes or pre-school education, she said.

Linda Vanderwerf

I cover education issues for the West Central Tribune and have worked for the paper since 1995. I have worked in journalism since 1981.

Follow me on Twitter: @lindavanderwerf

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