Minnesota Aims to Ratchet Down Achievement Gap

By Michele McNeil — February 21, 2014 8 min read
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As some states use their No Child Left Behind Act waivers to try to move far away from certain aspects of the law, Minnesota is doing the opposite when it comes to accountability—and with early, promising results.

The state is eschewing popular education policy trends such as A-F grading systems, state takeover districts, and “supersubgroups” of at-risk students in favor of policies that embrace the spirit of the 12-year-old accountability law. Minnesota is elevating the importance of small subgroups of at-risk students, issuing progress reports to districts on achievement gaps, and relying on regional centers to help struggling schools.

The payoff for such unflashy work? Early data show that about three-quarters of districts are on track to cut their achievement gaps in half by 2017 for nearly all of their subgroups—a key goal of the NCLB waivers offered by the U.S. Department of Education. Graduation rates for black students in 2012-13 increased at six times the rate of white students from the previous school year. More than 70 percent of Minnesota’s lowest-performing “priority” and “focus” schools have shown improvement on test scores.

What’s more, unlike most other states, Minnesota has passed federal waiver monitoring by the Education Department with flying colors.

“We do really well with overall achievement, but we have struggled with achievement disparities among subgroups,” said Brenda Cassellius, Minnesota’s education commissioner. “We hadn’t seen our at-risk kids gain any traction. Now, we have created a clear goal around these disparities.”

‘Lack of Urgency’

Overall, Minnesota is a high-performing state academically, but it has some of the highest achievement gaps in the country between white minority students, and between low-income students and their more affluent peers. Those gaps have caught the attention of U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, who in a January 2011 speech to the Minnesota Chamber of Commerce criticized the state for its “lack of urgency” and its stalled progress in raising the achievement of disadvantaged students.

So when the department offered waivers under NCLB later that year, Minnesota jumped at the chance—and selected as its overarching goal that achievement gaps be cut in half by 2017.

The state’s school improvement strategy is more than just a goal, however.

Toward The Goal

Under its No Child Left behind Act waiver, Minnesota aims to cut achievement gaps in half for all eight subgroups of students, including low-income students, minorities, and students with disabilities by 2017. About 40 percent of districts are on track to meet that goal in math and reading for all eight subgroups.


Source: Minnesota Department of Education

The new accountability system is heavy on multiple data points, giving schools and districts information on proficiency rates, student growth, achievement gaps, and graduation rates for high schools.

“We didn’t want to mash it up into an A-F grade. There was power in giving every single school an achievement-gap score,” said Ms. Cassellius, who was appointed commissioner in January 2011 by Gov. Mark Dayton, a Democrat.

The state is boosting literacy training and focusing on state and local data teams that can help teachers make sense of the new information.

And perhaps most importantly, the state has elevated the role of its regional support centers in helping the lowest-performing schools. The state legislature recently gave the department an additional $2 million to double the number of these “centers of excellence” to six.

“We are not taking over schools. They should find the solutions,” Ms. Cassellius said.

Bay View Elementary School is one of the state’s lowest-performing “priority schools"—meaning it ranks in the bottom 5 percent for achievement—and also a recipient of aid through the federal School Improvement Grant program. The 550-student school, in which 43 percent of pupils are low-income, has struggled with overall proficiency rates and student growth, said Principal Diane Morin, who was brought in as a new principal two years ago when the school got its SIG designation.

Although her school’s label has come with a host of interventions and resources—from an additional 10 minutes a day of instructional time to a parent liaison—Ms. Morin said new instructional coaches and teacher-led “professional learning communities” have been the most important. And all have been coordinated by her school’s designated center for excellence.

“Before, there wasn’t a lot of accountability,” said Ms. Morin, referring to the pre-waiver NCLB era. “You’d go write a plan and it would sit. I called it shelf art. Now, every couple of months we update our school improvement plan and submit it to the state. It’s really upped the accountability. And people are really buying in.”

Local buy-in—and stability within the state’s education policy landscape—may be key to Minnesota’s early success in closing gaps.

Anne Hyslop, a policy analyst for the Washington-based New America Foundation who has closely studied the waivers, said that one other thing sets Minnesota apart: The state has adopted the Common Core State Standards only in English/language arts, and has stuck with its own tests versus joining the new federally supported consortia developing new assessments.

“They haven’t had to deal with the distraction. There’s been a lot of stability,” she said. “It does help when teachers and principals and district officials know what’s coming.”

Separately, state officials point out that the state hasn’t been mired in legislative battles over teacher hiring practices, vouchers, or so-called “parent-trigger” laws. Nor has the state asked for additional flexibility from federal officials around teacher evaluations or testing.

Yet the state’s waiver, and its new accountability path, are not without their critics.

The Minnesota Business Partnership gives the state credit for highlighting successful “reward” and “celebration” schools, and for extra supports for the lowest-performing schools. But it doesn’t like that the state’s student-growth model compares students’ growth against other students versus an absolute proficiency standard, said Jim Bartholomew, the group’s education policy director. And, the business group feels there’s not a lot of attention paid to schools that are not among the lowest performing.

“We have a huge achievement gap, and there is a sense of urgency,” Mr. Bartholomew said. “There is not a lot of directed action for schools in the middle.”

Emphasis on Subgroups

One of the most significant deviations that states made from the original NCLB Act was in backing away from the law’s emphasis on disaggregating data for small subgroups of at-risk students. More than a dozen states, in their approved waivers, instead decided to group students together into one low-performing supersubgroup. They argued that this new tactic would get around issues with subgroups that don’t have enough students to warrant statistically reliable achievement data.

But Minnesota stuck with its eight subgroups, gave them more prominence, and is now reporting and holding districts accountable for how subgroups of students fare in graduation rates as well. In its new school and district rating system, three (or four) factors are weighted equally: student proficiency, growth, reduction in achievement gaps, and graduation rates for high schools.

Minnesota earned a nod of praise from the Education Trust, which has been highly critical of how federal officials structured the waivers and how states have redesigned their accountability systems in response. The Washington-based advocacy group doesn’t think most states are putting enough emphasis on closing gaps in their new ratings systems. But Minnesota is one exception, the group said in a Feb. 2013 report, because it incorporates achievement gaps into its new ratings system.

And in defense of the traditional subgroup categories, Ms. Cassellius, the Minnesota commissioner, said students are not lost in Minnesota’s accountability system given its student-growth measure.

“Every kid has a predicted growth score now,” said Ms. Cassellius, noting that schools earn points for each student’s progress toward the predicted growth rate. “Every kid matters. Even if they’re proficient.”

And as state officials like to say, all means all. In Minnesota, the achievement gap is measured by comparing the growth of a disadvantaged subgroup against the statewide average growth of higher-performing peers. So the growth of students of color at one school is measured against the statewide growth average for white students. Low-income students at an individual school are compared against their wealthier peers statewide.

And, white students in a school are compared against white students statewide. Now, Ms. Cassellius said, 220 school districts are not meeting goals for their white students and are getting flagged—something they likely avoided under the original NCLB.

“We have really high-performing white students. You still want them to grow—every school and every subgroup,” she said.

Focus on Achievement Gaps

The federal waiver’s requirements forced all states, including Minnesota, to zero in not just on the lowest-performing schools, but on “focus” schools that have the largest achievement gaps. But these focus schools have been a particular weak spot for states as they implement their waiver plans, as federal officials find that interventions are not often linked to the reason achievement gaps exist in the first place.

This is not a problem in Minnesota, according to its federal monitoring report.

Case in point is Garlough Elementary, a K-4 environmental magnet school just south of the Twin Cities that has seen large achievement gaps among its Hispanic students. Reading has been a particularly tough subject for the school.

Working with its regional support center, the school has revamped its reading programs—creating assessments to identify children’s reading levels, focusing on guided reading in the classroom, and using a literacy coach. And as a result, the achievement gaps—particularly among Hispanic students—closed significantly in 2013, state data show.

“Under NCLB we were never labeled a bad school. We had never gone through a school improvement process. So when we got this ‘focus’ designation it felt really horrible,” said Sue Powell, who is in her ninth year as the principal at the 350-student school. “But the support we’ve got has been phenomenal.”

A version of this article appeared in the February 26, 2014 edition of Education Week as Minnesota Aims to Ratchet Down Achievement Gap


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