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Minnesota’s new school accountability system: How is it different — and how is it being received?

As those affected make sense of the new system, here’s a look at how it’s being received, particularly by schools not used to being called out by the state for underserving a particular portion of its student population.

Emmet D. Williams Elementary School
Emmet D. Williams Elementary School, located in the Roseville Area Schools district, also made the North Star System assessment list — a first for the non-Title I school, which had no unfavorable state grades under the old system.
MinnPost photo by Erin Hinrichs

Heading into Labor Day weekend, the Minnesota Department of Education launched a new method for assessing school success: the North Star system.

It’s a personalized version of the new federally mandated school accountability system, the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA). And it differs in important ways from the state’s old system.

Standardized test scores still matter a great deal, as they did in Minnesota’s old plan under the waiver Education Commissioner Brenda Cassellius received from the Bush-era No Child Left Behind Act, the Multiple Measurements Rating system. Likewise, the top-performing and lowest-performing schools still receive a rating. But as states built their ESSA plans, they were required to create an even more comprehensive assessment of what’s happening in their schools.

The North Star system takes five key measurements into consideration: academic achievement, academic growth, progress toward English language proficiency for students learning English, four- and seven-year graduation rates, and student attendance.

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We are putting testing into its proper place by using it as one piece of important information alongside other data that, together, shine a bright light on a school’s quality or a student’s experience,” said the state’s education commissioner, Brenda Cassellius, in a recent press release. “Over the next several years, we plan to expand our data systems that collect course-taking information, career and college readiness, and school climate measures. This will give us a better picture of school quality than what current data are able to provide.”

Under this new assessment system, the state released a list of 526 public schools that it has identified as top performers. It also cast a much wider net in identifying more than 480 schools to receive varying levels of support over the next three years. For comparison, the state only identified 155 schools for improvement in 2016, the last year it applied the old accountability system.   

The list of schools designated for the highest level of state support includes 51 schools — up from the 47 schools initially reported by the state, before a few district data collection errors came to light — that make up the bottom 5 percent of Title I schools. It’s a cohort with many holdovers from the old state accountability system.

It also includes a number of non-Title I schools. That’s a significant change from the old system, which  limited accountability efforts to the schools that receive federal funding under Title I because they have high percentages of low-income students. There’s a focus now on “not masking certain low-performing student groups at high-performing schools,” said a spokesperson for the state Department of Education during a recent North Star webinar.

As school administrators, educators, parents and education watchdogs make sense of the new system, here’s a look at how it’s being received, particularly by schools not used to being called out by the state for underserving a particular portion of their student population.

Two new filters at work

Under the new North Star system, all high schools with four-year graduation rates below 67 percent for any student group — be it special education students, English Learners, low-income students or those of a particular race — are also flagged for “comprehensive” support, the highest level of state support.

Additionally, schools with a student group whose performance mirrors that of the lowest 5 percent of Title I schools in the various accountability domains are also flagged for “targeted” support.

Taking a closer look at the high school graduation rate filter, more than 150 high schools are flagged for comprehensive support. Of those, nearly half are non-Title I schools.

For instance, the Minneapolis Public Schools district’s Southwest Senior High has an overall graduation rate of 88 percent — well above the district’s overall graduation rate of 66 percent and the statewide graduation rate of 83 percent. Yet only 53 percent of the school’s special education population is graduating.

While the statewide graduation rate for special education students currently sits at just 61 percent, Southwest High got flagged on this particular indicator under the North Star system to receive comprehensive support from the state to address this particular shortcoming. Before, the school would have flown under the state’s radar.

Likewise, Eden Prairie Senior High has an overall graduation rate of 87 percent. But four of its student subsets — special education students, Hispanic students, English Learners and students eligible for free-and-reduced-price lunch — aren’t hitting the 67 percent threshold.

Similarly, Burnsville High School has an overall graduation rate of 86 percent, but was flagged for comprehensive support because its English Learners, Hispanic students and special education students aren’t meeting the minimum graduation rate required under the North Star system.

Aaron Tinklenberg, a spokesperson for the Burnsville-Eagan-Savage School District, says the findings didn’t come as a surprise because they closely track graduation rates, broken down by student group, each year. But school leaders are still learning what it means to be identified for support under the new system, he said.

“The confusing part for us is not knowing quite how the support from the state is going to play out yet,” he said.

This fall, school leaders will attend trainings provided by the state Department of Education to learn what resources are available to them as they develop their action plans. The department’s Regions Centers of Excellence, which are located across the state and act as hubs of educational consultants, will serve as a cornerstone of this support effort.

The North Star’s new student subset filter brings another handful of schools not used to being identified for state supports into the fold.

For instance, overall, Minneapolis’ Kenwood Elementary stands well above the state’s lowest-performing schools. Yet it got flagged for targeted support because its black students, special education students and students eligible for free-and-reduced-price lunch are performing on some indicators at a rate that more closely mirrors those in the bottom 5 percent than their school peers.

Emmet D. Williams Elementary School, located in the Roseville Area Schools district, also made this list — a first for the non-Title I school, which had no unfavorable state grades under the old system.

In working with the state, the school will be focusing on improving outcomes in math and reading for its special education population and improving outcomes in math for its two-or-more-races student population.

The need to continue working on closing achievement gaps with its special education population didn’t come as a surprise to the school’s principal, Brian Koland. Special education students account for about 20 percent of his school’s student population, whereas other elementary schools in the district are being held accountable for the educational outcomes of far fewer special education students. That’s because his school hosts a district-wide special education program.

But the other student group that led to his school’s identification for support was more unexpected, he said. “The two-or-more races — that’s definitely a piece that’s new learning for me,” he said. “I hadn’t cut the data looking at a child based upon two or more races. We’d really been a single race comparison group. So I’ve gone through who the children are and I had some surprises in there because I didn’t know about the racial experience of some of our students.”

Looking ahead, he expects that they’ll pay closer attention to how these students are performing on academic assessments throughout the year. The challenging part, he says, will be figuring out how to make better sense of these findings so they can best target supports and interventions.

“I haven’t been able to make sense of it yet — around, systemically, what to change — except that this group is large enough, so we need to pay some attention, and we know we can do better,” he said. “There’s no particular theme that’s come through yet. I’m hoping that’s one of the pieces we get from the state department.”

‘It’s still just a snapshot’

Principal Ryan Vernosh is no stranger to shouldering the pressures of an unfavorable state grade. His school, Maxfield Elementary, located in the St. Paul Public Schools district, had received a “priority” designation under the state’s old system — the rough equivalent of its identification as a “comprehensive” support school under the new North Star system.

He says the new system is certainly a “step in the right direction,” especially when compared to the more punitive nature of the old system. But he adds, “It’s still just a snapshot of what’s happening in our schools — especially at the elementary level.”

A number of significant factors that impact student achievement are still not taken into account, he says. That includes things like systemic racism, economic injustices, inequitable health care, high mobility and hunger.

This sort of context matters, especially at a school like his, he says — where almost 30 percent of students experience homelessness at some point during the year, and students have been “so underserved by our society that they’re reading at a kindergarten level when they come to us in third, fourth, or fifth grade.”

Context matters, he said. But he stressed that it’s not about dodging accountability. As a school leader, he’s focused on improving the things that are within his control, like analyzing biases in instructional practices and materials, distributing financial resources in an equitable way, tightening up intervention systems and differentiating professional development for staff.

In the North Star system, we’re getting additional supports to help us tighten up our intervention systems, to help us make sure that we’ve got the resources in place for a really literacy rich environment,” he said, noting their grade gives them access to state grant dollars. “It’s helping us with the factors that we can control. However when we look at the bigger scope, there are certainly some things that the North Star system does not take into account that we need to be honest with ourselves [about] as a city, as a state, as a nation, on what we’re doing to service our schools.”