Minn. Reaches Uneasy Accord Over Learning Standards
By the final gavel closing their legislative session this month, Minnesota lawmakers had not scuttled the state's embattled graduation standards, as many had hoped. Nor had they offered school districts a competing, turn-back-the-clock system, as many others had feared.
Instead, legislators cobbled together a new, narrower compromise on top of others that had collapsed, approving changes to the state's 2-year-old Profile of Learning standards that advocates believe will make them far more workable. The changes will give school districts and teachers more leeway in applying the student-performance standards, while leaving untouched a controversial requirement for assessments that emphasize understanding and real-life application. Gov. Jesse Ventura signed the bill into law late last week.
"This gives districts the ability to fix the problems they see,'' said Christine Jax, the state's commissioner for children, families, and learning.
For instance, districts will be able to delay the high-stakes standards for two years while teachers better adjust the curriculum to the learning goals mandated by the system, under the measure.
Another plus, in Ms. Jax's view, is that lawmakers ultimately rejected a plan to let districts use a competing system of requirements, known as the North Star Standard, which would have given Minnesota the nation's only dual accountability system. The North Star system is the work of conservative legislators and parents who oppose the existing graduation standards, known as the Profile of Learning, along with federal education programs such as Goals 2000.
"We got the legislature to dump the North Star Standard," Ms. Jax noted. "We were real worried because of where it originated, and because it is completely untested."
The new measure straddles a cultural fault line that divides educational traditionalists with a mistrust of government from innovators who believe the old educational approaches fall short of today's demands. For this reason, the protests are unlikely to fade away.
Some lawmakers and the head of the increasingly influential Maple River Education Coalition, a grassroots group that formed two years ago to fight the graduation standards, have vowed to renew their efforts next year. And virtually everyone agrees the matter is one of the most contentious in memory.
"The issue was very, very emotional, very heated," said House Speaker Steven A. Sviggum, a Republican.
Rep. Robert Ness, a co-chair of the House-Senate conference committee that tried to make a deal that included the alternative graduation standards promoted by the Maple River coalition, likened the effort to "trying to transport frogs in a wheelbarrow."
In the end, the Maple River coalition and a few key members of the House rejected the compromise because of testing requirements in the bill that they said would hold the alternative North Star Standard hostage to the Profile, possibly subverting local control.
Leaders in the Democratic-controlled Senate, where the Profile had more supporters, refused to reopen negotiations and the upper chamber subsequently passed two bills, one that contained only the Profile modifications and the other the compromise agreement rejected by the coalition and its allies in the House.
Eventually, the House passed the Profile-only bill on an 80-46 vote. But the bill containing both the modified Profile and the North Star system went down on a 99-27 vote in the pre-dawn hours of the legislature's final day, May 18.
Mr. Sviggum acknowledged that the final outcome split his party and fell short of his goals, but he argued that it beat going home empty-handed. That's what happened last year, when the legislature deadlocked over changes. ("Minnesota Weighs Profile of Learning's Fate," May 12, 1999.)
"When you are cooperating with the Senate and compromising with the governor, you don't get everything you want," Mr. Sviggum said. "From my perspective the bill was an incremental step in the right direction."
Under the legislation, Minnesota's 348 local school boards can waive Profile requirements for students who are now in grades 9 and 10.
The system, which took nearly a decade and millions of dollars to develop, took effect with current 10th graders, but lawmakers were worried that the problems surrounding it would wind up unfairly penalizing students.
To meet the Profile's requirements, students must complete tasks that apply their knowledge—for example, in mathematics, they might compare savings plans or build a model home to scale. Such "performance assessments" have turned out to be far more difficult to devise and use than paper-and-pencil tests.
Local boards will also be able to waive selected requirements for students enrolled in advanced academic programs, such as Advanced Placement courses or an International Baccalaureate program, and for transfer students.
Perhaps more important, say the bill's proponents, districts can relax the number of learning goals students must meet at different points in their school careers, through separate annual votes of the school board, on the one hand, and affected teachers, on the other. If the two camps cannot settle on the same figure, districts must keep the state's current standard: 24 goals out of a possible 48. In addition, schools are required to offer courses that will give students the opportunity to meet at least 24 goals.
The change is meant to address a barrage of teacher and parent complaints that the goals have in effect replaced good curriculum with standards that are half-baked or worse, while overburdening teachers with paperwork.
To further clear up the confusion, lawmakers say, the bill makes explicit that districts are not obliged to use the model assessments, known as "performance packages," developed by the state. Many teachers turned to the packages—which stressed projects and group work—over the last few years, sometimes cramming them into their courses where they didn't fit in an effort to meet the state's requirements. For their part, parents and students complained about busywork.
The state's schedule for implementing the Profile did not give teachers enough time to work the goals into their curriculum, said Adrienne Sonnek, the principal of Maple River Central Elementary School, near Mankato. That became especially true after every district in the state accepted the legislature's offer two years ago to receive $14 more per pupil in exchange for putting the standards into effect two years early, the administrator added.
"This latest move by the legislature is very welcome," Ms. Sonnek said. "It gives teachers the time to do what they need to do."
Judy Schaubach, a co-president of Education Minnesota, the statewide teachers' union affiliated with both the National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers, agreed that the legislation is welcome. "We felt if these changes weren't made this year, the whole thing would die of its own weight," she said, referring to the Profile graduation standards.
In two recent surveys, nine out of every 10 teachers said they found the system unworkable, the union leader said. Still, she called the plan well worth salvaging. "There really have been some positive things resulting from this, such as greater alignment of standards and curriculum and meeting higher standards," Ms. Schaubach said.
But Renee T. Doyle, the president of the Mankato-based Maple River coalition, which worked on the North Star Standard, called the Profile system "a huge mess, and we have kids who are learning nothing."
Ms. Doyle, the mother of three school-age children, said her group was looking for a "return to the educational system that served us well for over 150 years" with a strong emphasis on the basics, progress measured in high school by courses and credits, and the teacher as an instructor rather than a facilitator.
The North Star system pushed by the group would have relied on national standardized tests for accountability, and veered away from learning goals and tasks that would "invite misuse as ideological indoctrination," according to information on the coalition's World Wide Web site.
Susan van Druten, who teaches English at Duluth East High School and supports the coalition, said she had struggled to make the Profile standards work in her 9th grade classes with only partial success. In the end, she concluded, if districts and the state continue to insist on "project-based learning, it won't work in English."
Vol. 19, Issue 38, Pages 16, 19Published in Print: May 31, 2000, as Minn. Reaches Uneasy Accord Over Learning Standards