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Lawmakers look to weigh in on Minnesota’s federal education accountability plan

From a technical standpoint, Commissioner of Education Brenda Cassellius points out, state legislators are laying out parameters that contradict federal law.

As a handful of participants who sat on the ESSA accountability committee convened at the Minnesota Department of Education Tuesday evening to recap the work they've done so far, state lawmakers voted to pass the education finance omnibus bill.
MinnPost photo by Erin Hinrichs

On Tuesday evening, members of the House cast a party-line 72-59 vote to pass the education finance omnibus bill. It includes things like a 1.5 percent funding increase to the basic education formula — a number that falls short of the 2 percent increase opponents say is needed to help schools keep up with the cost of inflation. It also earmarks dollars for school readiness funding and early learning scholarships, but doesn’t include funding for the expansion of Gov. Mark Dayton’s signature voluntary pre-K program. And it abolishes the Perpich Center for Arts Education, redirecting resources to establish an arts outreach division at the Department of Education.  

There’s another item in the bill having to do with school accountability that’s far less attention-grabbing, but still significant. In brief, state legislators want to review the state’s new federal accountability plan — the Every Student Succeeds Act, commonly known as ESSA — at least 30 days before it gets submitted to the U.S. Department of Education for approval this fall. Language in the bill directs the commissioner to ensure there’s alignment with the existing state school accountability system, the World’s Best Workforce, “to the extent practicable.” That’s an aim that most can agree on.

But when it comes to selecting which new indicator should be adopted to create a more holistic definition of school quality and student success, it appears that the Department of Education’s preferred frontrunner — chronic absenteeism — may be up against an unexpected hurdle.

“I just think chronic absenteeism has become trendy,” Rep. Sondra Erickson, R-Princeton, chair of the House Education Innovation Policy Committee, said, noting it’s included in several other draft ESSA plans from states who hit the first deadline for submission. “Why doesn’t Minnesota do something different? If absenteeism is really what we think we should do in a school quality indicator, lets look at it a little differently.”

Why chronic absenteeism?

From a technical standpoint, Commissioner of Education Brenda Cassellius points out, state legislators are laying out parameters that contradict federal law. As currently written in the education omnibus bill, “The school quality or student success accountability indicator required by ESSA must be an academic indicator.”

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“That’s against federal law,” Cassellius said in a phone interview. “The federal law requires that the school quality or student success accountability indicator be nonacademic. It’s not that it can’t be academic. It’s just that it also has to include a nonacademic measure.”

One of ESSA’s distinguishing characteristics is that it gives states greater flexibility in setting student achievement goals and directs them to look beyond test scores to gauge school performance. This addition of a so-called “fifth indicator” — which measures things like the number of minutes students spend in physical education, parent engagement, social-emotional learning or some other factor outside of test scores and graduation rates — signals a widely hailed shift away from the more punitive, test-centric No Child Left Behind law. States can opt to add more than one of these new indicators to their accountability plan.

Brenda Cassellius
Brenda Cassellius

To be clear, the addition of a fifth indicator to round out how schools are evaluated doesn’t mean the hallmark school accountability data sets — proficiency in reading and math, along with high school graduation rates — go to the wayside. Rather, states must now track these measures, along with academic growth (which Minnesota already does in reading and math) and English-language proficiency, plus at least one other indicator of school quality or student success. Also, as states assign a weight to each indicator, ESSA specificities that the indicator of school quality or student success must count much less toward a school’s score than the combined weight of the other indicators.

The commissioner’s preference for using chronic absenteeism as a fifth indicator was guided by a pretty intensive community engagement process. She toured the state seeking feedback on all aspects of the new ESSA plan. And folks at the state Department of Education conducted dozens of meetings over the past year and a half with community members, education advocates, teachers, administrators, parents and data experts who served on two ESSA accountability committees.

The two groups explored the possibility of tracking postsecondary readiness, access to student support services, school climate, student engagement, social-emotional learning and more. They reached a general consensus around tracking chronic absenteeism for a couple of main reasons. First of all, it’s a data set that doesn’t require a heavy lift. Using attendance numbers that are already collected for the Minnesota Automated Reporting Student System (MARRS) reports, state department staff can simply divide each students’ number of days attended by the number of days they were enrolled.

Secondly, there’s value in paying better attention to which students are missing out on a critical portion of their education. This new use of existing data would reveal which students are missing 10 percent or more days of the school year — a threshold that puts them at greater risk of falling behind. In Minnesota last year, for instance, nearly a quarter of students enrolled in the free or reduced priced meal program were chronically absent. Rates also largely broke down along racial lines, with minority students missing more school days. The thinking is that as disparities are identified, schools can dig into the underlying causes and better direct resources to support students.

The state education omnibus bill spells out four academic options legislators would rather see the state Education Department adopt as part of its ESSA plan, all of which can be pulled from existing state accountability assessments. That list includes: reading and math growth for students performing in the bottom quartile,  third grade reading proficiency, eighth grade mathematics proficiency, and science proficiency.

This push to fall back on existing data points prompts an important question: Is Minnesota going to stick with the status quo? Or is it going to use new, innovative, data points to tackle one of the worst achievement gaps in the nation?

Time to make a decision

Erickson says the options listed out in the education bill focus on what’s most important: academic outcomes that highlight what teachers are doing in the classroom. She has concerns that focusing on chronic absenteeism will put pressure on schools to change their attendance policies and will distract from what’s going on in the classroom.

“I don’t know how we solve this chronic absenteeism other than kids have to be in school,” she said. “And usually they’re not because they don’t have a parent at home who’s making sure they get to school. We can’t legislate parenting. I guess I would have to say it’s going to take the school district …. actually getting out there and visiting the homes of the children who are not showing up at school, and finding out what the reason is, and helping the parent to get more organized. Maybe social work gets involved.”

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Rep. Sondra EricksonState Rep. Sondra Erickson

Erickson says she realizes the commissioner will likely move forward with adopting chronic absenteeism anyway. But she also laid out a third guideline in the bill, regarding the state’s ESSA plan, directing the commissioner to include a measure for college and career readiness. For instance, tracking student success or attainment in advanced placement or international baccalaureate examinations would be one way of looking at which students are not only accessing, but also succeeding in courses designed to prepare them for a postsecondary education.

It’s a popular indicator that’s made the cut in a number of state ESSA plans that have already been submitted for federal review. And it has quite a bit of popular support in Minnesota. The holdup, at least for now, says Cassellius, is figuring out a meaningful, reliable way to collect that data, statewide.

“We need to be digging into those numbers and finding out who has access and who doesn’t have access to those classes, but we don’t have a reliable way to collect that yet. Once we’re able to get good compliance in school districts on their Minnesota course catalog, we’ll be able to see all of that information,” she says, noting less than half of schools currently report their course information. “We’ll also be able to see, because of our STAR report, who’s teaching that and what tier those teachers are at, teaching those subjects, in the future. But we’re building those systems now.”

Once the Education Department is equipped to better support this data collection, she says, she can write to the U.S. Department of Education and add new indicators by simply amending the state’s ESSA accountability plan.

Madaline Edison, executive director of the Minnesota branch of Educators for Excellence, who’s been a part of the ESSA meetings held at the department of education, is hoping for a compromise that takes alignment with World’s Best Workforce and the opportunity to innovate into account.

“The spirit of the law is really about going beyond your typical graduation scores and test rates to look at other measure of the student experience in school that are deeply correlated to academic and life outcomes,” Edison said. “It’s not surprising that the legislature would like to play a role in such an important decision in our state as this. But it is troubling to me this is happening so late in the process. In hindsight, I wish the department and legislators would have been working together throughout this whole process.”