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Minnesota's new MMR: 'much more holistic'

Arne Duncan
MinnPost photo by Beth Hawkins
Education Secretary Arne Duncan, who addressed students at Minneapolis' South High earlier this year, is supportive of the new, alternative measures.

Given the ocean of money we’ve poured into standardized testing, our collective obsession with ranking schools and all of the justifiable hand-wringing about No Child Left Behind, I think it’s astonishing that the state’s new Multiple Measurement Ratings (MMR) have gotten so very little ink.

The ratings, in case you missed the blink-and-you’ll-miss-it coverage, are Minnesota’s replacement for NCLB’s failed accountability system under which schools where too few students passed standardized tests were sanctioned as failures. Student proficiency is still part of the system, but so are factors such as student growth and progress toward closing the achievement gap.

The state Department of Education proposed the MMR as a part of Minnesota’s request for a waiver from compliance with NCLB. In February, U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan approved the proposal. The public got its first look at the new ratings system last week.  

We are, it seems, nonplussed with the results, which put a high-poverty, odds-beating charter at the top of the list along with a number of seeming dark horses with similar student bodies, and rate a number of “buzz-worthy” schools lower than the old system.

Local responses

The St. Paul Pioneer Press carried an editorial questioning whether the new ratings create lower standards for poor kids — I don’t think they do; proficiency is proficiency, right? — and warning about a return to the pre-NCLB "soft bigotry of low expectations."

The Star Tribune carried a searchable database of schools, a story noting that in general, the wealthier schools that topped the old list top the new one, while poorer schools still don’t fare so well and a letter suggesting the paper missed the real story.

Me, I revisited Hiawatha Leadership Academy, the new pinnacle for success, and wrote about the characteristics it shares with other schools that are revealed by the MMR to be getting great results in fragile populations. The numbers, I suggested, should be used to draw attention to what’s working so that it can be replicated.

Comments — and context

Today, I offer links to a few items of interest to anyone who is interested in the issue. The meatiest is a column on HometownSource.com by Joe Nathan, director of the Center for School Change. Nathan canvassed educators in a number of Twin Cities suburbs and Greater Minnesota for their decidedly mixed reactions. He supplements their comments with badly needed context.

Next, if you want to know what the intersection of listmania and the new odds-beaters looks like from a  teacher's perspective, check out MinnCAN blogger Christina Salter’s post about Higher Ground Academy, the St. Paul charter high school where she teaches a student body that is 100 percent East African and Muslim.

In addition to earning “reward” status on the MMR, Higher Ground was recently named 47th in the nation by U.S. News & World Report, which this year switched over to an MMR-like scale.

Her .02: “Truly meaningful school report cards will not only take an honest look at how a given school is advancing student learning and correcting educational disparities, they will inform parents about experiences happening inside the school, too.”

Charts, and Duncan's view

I’m also passing along a couple of charts prepared by Jim Smith, who is the data coordinator at the charter Twin Cities International Elementary School, another program that rocketed to the front of the pack under the new accountability system. To make sense of them, you will need to know that FRP stands for free and reduced-price lunch, which tells you a school’s poverty level.

You also need to know that “reward” schools are the top 15 percent high performing schools serving enough poor kids to qualify for Title I funding — which is not a lot, actually — “priority” schools are the lowest-performing 5 percent of Title I schools, and “focus” schools are the 10 percent of Title I programs with the largest achievement gaps between two or more groups of students.   

In closing, I offer you some quotes from an interview I did last week with Secretary Duncan that did not fit into the story for which we spoke. He brushed aside suggestions that the MMR is the equivalent of grading on a curve, saying it’s important to be able to identify areas of growth and gain.

“I think Minnesota’s accountability system is a big step forward,” he said. “Fundamentally I am a big believer in multiple measures. We wanted to get away from looking at just one number. I think [the MMR] is much more holistic.”

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Comments (2)

MMR - free pass

What does a state with some of the widest achievement gaps for students of color and low-income students need? A new accountability system that that lets over 900 schools off the hook for making needed changes.

We've known for years that students of color, generally, are the least well-served by our schools - and they're the fastest growing segment of our student population.

Not only does the MMR cut the number of schools that need to make changes based on lower than expected student performance, but it also lowers expectations.

Combining student academic growth with measures to determine if students are meeting grade-level standards is a good idea. Unfortunately, the MMR uses a growth formula that says if a low-performing student continues to be a low-performing student, that's OK. Student growth should be connected with the expectation that students will meet grade-level standards.

Once incentives to change are removed, systems tend to to keep the status quo. Minnesota just removed a set of incentives to change for over 900 schools.

Maybe not quite

I'm not yet conversant with all the details of the argument, so a big asterisk needs to be added somewhere to this comment, but I'm inclined to agree, nonetheless, with a couple of Jim Bartholomew's lines:

“…Student growth should be connected with the expectation that students will meet grade-level standards” is one that seems self-evident to me. "Growth" and "progress" become meaningless unless there's some sort of benchmark in place against which to measure whatever it is that's going on. Grade-level standards seem to me to be a reasonable benchmark.

“Once incentives to change are removed, systems tend to to keep the status quo” is, likewise, a statement I find it hard to argue with. Inertia is among the most powerful forces in the universe – no less in human institutions than in physics.

That said, I’ll object to the phraseology of another statement: “We've known for years that students of color, generally, are the least well-served by our schools - and they're the fastest growing segment of our student population.” What has been known for years is that students of color, generally, are the poorest-performing students. Also known through the years is the truism that socio-economic class is, and remains, the single best predictor of academic achievement. In a society where discrimination remains widespread, whether racial, cultural, religious, or age or gender-based, it’s not a great surprise that students of color are disproportionately represented among those in the bottom quartile of the economic ladder.

My quarrel here would be with the phrase “…least well-served…” While not especially supportive of LIFO in Minnesota, I’ve seen no evidence that Minnesota teachers are either not qualified to teach, or are somehow withholding from students of color information, concepts, knowledge, if you will, that’s being freely provided to other students. ‘Twould seem that students of color are being presented with the necessary information, but are – for a variety of reasons, most of which are totally out of the control of schools and school districts – not absorbing or making use of that information. That doesn’t strike me as quite the same thing as “not serving well” the clientele.

But maybe that’s another topic for another discussion.

Yes, there ought to be parameters against which to measure “progress” if said “progress” is to have any meaning or validity in the real world. Similarly, innovation is always difficult to achieve in large organizations - whether they be private or public, educational or business – because innovation inevitably involves change, which both employees and the public at large usually resist.