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A new way of grading Minnesota schools, but achievement gaps persist

ST. PAUL — No matter how the state measures school performance, one thing remains clear — Minnesota has one of the nation's largest academic achievement gaps.

The Minnesota Department of Education will unveil a new method for grading schools Thursday, Aug. 30, called the North Star accountability system, but the results are largely the same. Students of color, those who are learning English and students who have special needs or come from low-income families routinely struggle academically compared with their peers.

Brenda Cassellius, state education commissioner, says Minnesota's new school grading system is designed to close those gaps. It's the third accountability system the state has used in about six years and Cassellius described it as an evolution of past yardsticks.

What does it measure?

The North Star system collects more detailed information about a larger number of schools than ever before, and that should help educators pinpoint why some students struggle to learn, Cassellius said.

"I hope people will see a system that is focused on continuous improvement, support and most importantly equity, (because) more kids are going to be counted," she said.

The system measures standardized test scores, students' academic growth, success with students learning English, consistent attendance and high school graduation rates to identify the state's most struggling schools.

The one measure of academic performance that's remained constant over roughly two decades is tests like the Minnesota Comprehensive Assessments, or MCAs, which students take annually in math, reading and science. Statewide results show scores are mostly stagnant again this year although there were some small increases and declines among specific student groups.

Under the new accountability system, the state identified 50 districts and charters along with 485 individual schools as needing different levels of support from the state. Of those the state identified, 83 schools, including 47 that serve a high number of low-income students, are considered the state's most struggling and qualify for "comprehensive support" from education specialists.

How can they improve?

To help them get better, low-performing schools and districts will get coaching from experts to help enhance and fine-tune their instruction. Sometimes, that will include strategies to help specific student groups.

Altogether, the state plans to intervene with 485 schools, roughly three times the number that got help under the old system. New state and federal funds, including $1 million a year for the state's Centers of Excellence, will help with that effort.

The North Star system isn't just about finding public schools facing challenges. The state also recognized 526 schools as top performers, and education leaders hope to duplicate their success across the state.

Another big difference in the North Star system is that every school in the state is examined while past systems focused on those serving large numbers of low-income students that qualified for federal aid called Title 1.

"We've now said, to move an entire state (forward), you've got to be moving every school," Cassellius said. "Every school has to be improving because as Minnesota becomes more geographically diverse ... we have students and teachers who need support in every single school."

To get off of the state's watchlist, schools need to improve their areas of lagging academic performance or scoring outside of the most struggling, high-poverty schools in 2021 when a new set of schools are identified.

What does it mean for parents?

Starting Thursday, Aug. 30, the state Department of Education will launch an updated school report card website that education officials say was designed to simply explain the successes and shortcomings of Minnesota schools.

State leaders have long faced criticism, especially from communities of color, that past accountability systems were confusing and unclear. Parents who have children attending struggling schools have repeatedly called for education officials to provide them with straightforward information about their educational options.

Carlos Mariani, a St. Paul lawmaker who also leads the Minnesota Education Equity Project, said he thinks the accountability system will provide parents with a good mix of information about how their schools are performing. Mariani added that it aligns well with other work the Legislature, where he serves on the House education committee, has done in recent years to try to address the academic achievement gap.

"Without discounting test scores," Mariani said, "(it) recognizes education is not just about tests. I believe most Minnesota parents would agree."

Next year, parents also will be able to access detailed information about how their schools are using funding specifically designated for helping certain student groups, such as those learning English or who have special academic needs.

But one thing the report card lacks is an overall rating for each school. That concerns advocates like Andrea Roethke, who oversees the policy team for the education equity group EdAllies.

"I think it is a step in the right direction in terms of transparency. There is more work to be done," Roethke said, noting that many other states have created simple ratings, like letter grades, for their schools.

"What we heard from parents again and again is they want some type of system to summarize that information," Roethke said.

More information to come

From the start, parents should get a clearer look at what their schools are doing to help struggling students succeed. But they'll also get a new chance to weigh in.

Districts identified by the state for support will convene community members to draft "comprehensive needs assessments" that will give parents, students, teachers and others a chance to tell local leaders and state lawmakers what resources their schools need.

Denise Specht, president of Education Minnesota, says that is unprecedented in Minnesota.

"Minnesota students, families and classroom educators have waited many years for a meaningful way to communicate the local challenges they see every day to the Legislature," Specht said in a statement. "It will soon be very easy to tell who the politicians listen to."