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Minnesota’s new MMR: ‘much more holistic’

The Multiple Measurement Ratings The ratings are Minnesota’s replacement for NCLB’s failed accountability system.

Education Secretary Arne Duncan, who addressed students at Minneapolis's South High earlier this year, was a proponent 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.”

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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 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.

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“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.”