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Cassellius: Good news coming in on grad rates, gap-closing efforts

MinnPost photo by James Nord
Education Commissioner Brenda Cassellius addressing the joint House-Senate Education Committee during budget hearings last year.

Here are two inconvenient truths: No matter the education-policy case you wish to make, there are test data to support it. And if you’re using that data honestly, much of the time it will show that progress toward closing the gaps between affluent white students and their minority peers comes in maddeningly small increments.

When several streams of data begin to show the same progress? That’s when a gain begins to feel solid.

Brenda Cassellius is a happy woman. Exact numbers are still being checked and double-checked, but later this month the state Department of Education expects to announce that last year Minnesota schools doubled the 1 percent annual increase in graduation rates experienced between 2009 and 2012.

Particularly encouraging, the increase in graduation rates among African-Americans will be more than 5 percent over 2012, and some 10 percent since 2010.

‘We’re back on the map’

And that’s not all. Cassellius is sitting on a stack of data that she’s confident signals meaningful progress. Data from a variety of assessments, and reaching back to the start of her tenure as the state’s commissioner of education.

“We’re back on the map for education,” she said. “We’re re-establishing the expectation that all kids can learn.”

Late one recent afternoon, Cassellius is supposed to be squeezing lunch in between appointments, but a home-packed salad sits untouched next to a cup of cooling tea. She’s too engrossed in explaining the papers strewn across her desk to eat.

There are charts outlining growth in math and reading scores on different types of tests, and more charts breaking them out by socioeconomic and racial group. There are spreadsheets showing exactly how many more kids need to pass each test for their school district to be on track to meet Minnesota’s self-imposed goals.

There’s praise from the U.S. Department of Education [PDF] suggesting that Minnesota’s application to renew federal approval of Cassellius’ plan for narrowing the achievement gap is all but a shoo-in.

Most tantalizing, there are e-mails from Cassellius’ staff suggesting that when numbers are finalized later this month, she will be able to announce across-the-board increases in graduation rates. Increases that, if sustained over the next three years, will add up to meaningful change.

Not everything is rosy

Not all of the numbers are rosy. Gaps persist or have even widened for some older students of color, for example. And Minnesota ranks near the bottom in Asian student performance. Too many individual schools aren’t moving the needle perceptibly.

Additionally, the U.S. DOE has yet to sign off on the state’s plan for evaluating teachers and principals, which is still under review.

But Cassellius’ point is this: Her strategy of using data not to punish schools and districts but to alert them to problems and get them the right supports is working. Two-thirds — 64 percent — of Minnesota schools are on track to close their achievement gaps by 50 percent within the next three years.

“It’s like a flywheel,” she said. “The first couple of cranks are really hard.”

Letters to superintendents

This week, MDE staff is beginning the process of sending out a letter to every district superintendent in the state for the first time ever spelling out what their students’ overall proficiency level is, and where it needs to be in 2017.

If proficiency exceeds targets, the letter will congratulate the district. If it does not, it will spell out how many students — and how many in different racial and socioeconomic subsets — need to be brought up to speed for the district to be on track.

To drive home the point, every superintendent will also get a spreadsheet showing their peers’ status. Cassellius believes the charts will ruffle feathers; administrators don’t typically delve into other districts’ data.

“I think it makes a difference to know I’m looking,” she said. “What’s measured is what’s paid attention to. I’m asking them to pay attention to their data.”

The goal of 2001’s NCLB

A short history lesson is in order. It seems laughable now, but the goal of the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 (NCLB) was to prod schools to ensure that by 2014 — this year — every single one of their students was performing at or above grade level. Because Congress is years overdue to replace NCLB, universal proficiency is still the law of the land.

Two years ago, with even high-performing schools facing punitive sanctions, U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan end-ran Congress. States that could show they could do better than NCLB could apply for waivers from compliance.

Minnesota’s was one of the first applications approved. In it, Cassellius proposed using a combination of data and focused support to narrow the state’s achievement gap by half by 2017.

Separately, MDE set a goal of increasing the state’s four-year graduation rate, less than 77 percent in 2011, to 90 percent by 2020. No racial or socioeconomic subgroup can post a graduation rate of less than 80 percent under the plan.

Some of the accomplishments outlined in Cassellius’ stack of reports are political wins by the administration of Gov. Mark Dayton, whose re-election campaign is ramping up. Funding for all-day kindergarten and early-childhood education scholarships, for instance, has just begun to flow. So its impact on student welfare has yet to be felt.

And some reforms long sought by education avocates will be contentious issues when the 2014 Legislature convenes later this month. 

Data support overarching case

But Cassellius’ overarching case — that the state is moving in the right direction and at an accelerated pace — is supported by data gleaned from multiple sources.

For instance, as a whole Minnesota has long scored at or near the top of the nation in math on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), an apples-to-apples test administered every two years to a cross-section of fourth- and eighth-graders.

Since 2003, the state’s fourth-graders have ranked in the top five in math nationwide. In 2013, they placed first.

Because states make larger and smaller gains with subsets of students, a narrowed gap does not necessarily translate to a higher state-vs.-state ranking, and vice versa.

Between 2011 and 2013, the number of fourth-graders proficient in math and reading went up 6 percentage points each to 59 percent and 41 percent, respectively.

Gap closing in fourth grade, but opening in eighth

Results among African-American and Latino students are mixed, however. The gap between black and white fourth-graders in math and reading closed by three and five points, respectively, during the last NAEP testing cycle.

Yet in the eighth grade, it opened by one and five points. Cassellius asserts that the gap is closing in the lower grades because of Minnesota’s intensive focus on early literacy. While this is likely true, it’s also true that gaps in all subjects widen as students age.

This spring the state will apply for a one-year renewal of its federal waiver. Unlike at least six states that have been warned their waivers are in jeopardy, a report received in late January shows Minnesota has no issues to address.

The state got high marks for parent engagement and for its outreach to struggling schools. MDE staff meet weekly with administrators at schools on the state’s list of underperformers.

And Cassellius is particularly proud of one of the lesser-known appropriations by the 2013 legislature: $2 million to expand a fledgling network of Regional Centers of Excellence, MDE outposts staffed by educators with specialized skills who stand ready to assist nearby schools with strategies that have worked elsewhere.

New reporting requirements

The feds may not be asking for a more rigorous plan, but having shown Minnesota can do what it pledged, Cassellius plans to raise the bar. Schools now must report data only for subgroups of 40 or more students. A school with fewer students in poverty or fewer English-language learners, for instance, isn’t currently held accountable for their performance.

Going forward, MDE will require schools to report data on 10 or more students, and will in turn hold schools accountable for groups of 20 or more. Especially in small districts and in Greater Minnesota, this will make it harder to overlook kids who are being failed by the system.

Every kid has to count,” said Cassellius. “We put in our [first] waiver application what we thought we could do.”

And so it’s time to push for more, she added: “If there’s anywhere in the world we can close the achievement gap it’s right here in Minnesota.” 

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