Minnesota's Learning Standards Receive Mixed Review
An independent review of Minnesota's graduation standards has concluded that while well-intentioned, they are hard to use in the classroom, and that the system supporting them is too decentralized and toothless to ensure higher achievement for the most vulnerable students.
The report, released last month, criticizes the standards—known as the Profile of Learning—as being unclear, lacking detail, and covering too many subjects. Jointly produced by the nonprofit organizations Achieve and the Council for Basic Education, the evaluation also calls for the introduction of uniform statewide tests.
State education leaders are unlikely to readily embrace tests or content-heavy standards because such changes would fly in the face of the state's fundamental approach to school improvement.
Minnesota has deliberately steered away from specifying academic content for the standards, which instead focus largely on skills, in order not to tread on local control of curriculum. And state officials strongly advocate tasks in place of tests for student assessment, so as to link learning to the real world. In those respects, the state has charted a course that diverges from the one being followed by many other states.
"The report uses the national context, and I think that's good and important, but that has to be weighed against the fact that Minnesota tends to be cutting-edge," said Christine Jax, the commissioner of the Minnesota Department of Children, Families, and Learning. "We are the only state doing the performance assessment, and it's harder for a group that's never seen it before to grasp it."
Ms. Jax requested the report last year under urging from state lawmakers, who have struggled during two legislative sessions with proposals to alter unpopular graduation requirements linked to the standards.
During the 2000 session, the legislature changed the requirements to address complaints that ill-crafted standards and the tasks designed to measure them were driving out good curricula and overwhelming teachers with paperwork. But the report says the changes, while good on one level, "may lead Minnesota to a system of high standards for some students and low standards for the rest."
The report praises the state for insisting that students show what they know by solving practical problems and for encouraging many kinds of assessment. But it adds that the existing assessments—tasks or projects that may be devised locally or drawn from state models—are uneven and minimize knowledge of academic subject matter.
"We think their goals are very admirable, and what they are trying to do would fundamentally improve teaching and learning," said Jennifer L. Vranek of Achieve, one of the report's authors. "But the implementation of it is too problematic; we can't be sure that most students will get better- quality curriculum and learn more."
Achieve, a Cambridge, Mass.-based group created by governors and business leaders to promote standards-based reforms, has reviewed standards and assessments in six other states. ("Achieve Provides Indiana With 'Honest, Tough' Review," Feb. 19, 2000.)
If implemented, the report's recommendations would amount to an overhaul of Minnesota's current system. Not only do the authors suggest revising the standards to add depth and clarity, but they also suggest that the state create tests in the four core areas of English, mathematics, science, and social sciences. The tests would be the primary indicator for determining whether a student had met the graduation requirements.
The latest version of the state's "graduation rule" allows districts to opt out of any number of the 24 learning goals that the state previously required. In fact, four districts chose to have no goals at all for the class of 2002 and beyond, while most urban and rural areas decided on less than the full complement, the report says.
A third recommendation is to beef up the state's accountability measures by adding, for instance, a system to rank schools and help low-performing ones.
Rep. Harry Mares, a Republican who chairs the House education policy committee, endorses many of the report's recommendations. But he said he didn't know how much enthusiasm there would be in the legislature for again rethinking the system.
Members of the Minnesota House, where Republicans predominate, conducted a hearing on the report last week. A panel of parents and educators appointed by Ms. Jax is due to make its own recommendations based on its review of the report in time for the legislative session that convenes next month."We are waiting to see what the panel says," the commissioner said.
Vol. 20, Issue 14, Page 17