Should Minnesota grade its schools?

MinnPost file photo by Bill Kelley
Opponents of giving schools a single rating say that those ratings oversimplify how schools serve kids, make it easy to gloss over differences in how various groups fare at schools and fail to capture the things that families are really looking for in public schools.

When it comes to providing parents with information about the quality of public schools, how simple is too simple?

A bill at the Minnesota Legislature would require the state department of education to create a grading system for Minnesota’s schools, assigning each school an overall score to give parents an idea of the quality of the school. These types of ratings, known as summative scores, are already available from private groups like the website GreatSchools.

That’s not how Minnesota currently provides information to parents about schools. The state’s school report cards show a snapshot of several metrics — state test scores, attendance rates, graduation rates, and others — with the ability to access more detailed information, and information for specific subgroups like racial groups or English Language Learners. The state system presents the data, but it’s up to parents to decide which numbers are important to them.

Advocates for creating a single grading system in Minnesota argue that it’s too difficult for parents to parse all that educational data. “I’ve heard loud and clearly from many families that they are in support of this bill for the main reason of having something that’s simple, easy to understand, and gives them a starting point on making a best decision for their kids,” Rashad Turner, with the education-reform organization Minnesota Comeback, told an education committee last month.

But not everyone agrees that simpler is better — opponents of giving schools a single rating say that those ratings oversimplify how schools serve kids, make it easy to gloss over differences in how various groups fare at schools and fail to capture the things that families are really looking for in schools.

One rating to rule them all

What would a single-metric score look like? Summative scores for Minnesota schools are already available from websites like GreatSchools and Niche.

Imagine you’re looking at high schools in Minneapolis. Here are the scores from GreatSchools:

Source: greatschools.org
The summary scores for schools in this view range from 1/10 (below average) to 9/10 (above average). To determine these ratings for high schools, GreatSchools claims to use state test scores (determines 24 percent of the overall score), college readiness (via college entrance exam participation and graduation rates, 50 percent), advanced course participation (12 percent) and equity ratings (14 percent). For elementary schools, ratings are based on student progress (25 percent), equity (28 percent), and test scores (47 percent). The site also looks at other factors. More on the methodology can be found here.

Edison High School, a school in Northeast Minneapolis where 75 percent of students qualify for free and reduced-price lunch and 27 percent of students are English learners, gets a 1/10 on GreatSchools’ rating, with a score of one or two in several categories:

Source: greatschools.org
Clicking on each of the categories shows some of the data that go into the rating. For example, college readiness:

Source: greatschools.org
GreatSchools also has space for users of the site to leave comments.

The bill before the Legislature asks the Department of Education to come up with its own summative scoring system, so they might choose to emphasize different data points and give them different weights in the overall score.

As of last April, 45 states either used summative ratings or planned to use them, according to EdAllies, a Minnesota school-reform nonprofit that supports creating a summative system.

Proponents of a system like this would say making summary-level information about Edison and other schools available gives parents a starting point from which to dive into the more detailed information.

Missing the trees for the forest

Simple, right? But to opponents of using summative scores, GreatSchools’ 10 point scoring system is far too simple, and misses information that might actually be really important to parents.

Going back to Minneapolis’ Edison High, with it’s 1/10 GreatSchools rating: how do English language learners do at the school? That information isn’t available from GreatSchools, but state data show that 45 percent of English language learners at Edison are meeting their learning goals — above the district average and a little below the state’s. At Minneapolis’ Southwest High — a school that GreatSchools rates a 6/10 — the rate is just 36 percent.

You can find the information about English language learners on the state’s existing report card website, though you have to look around for it.

Critics of summative scores like the one GreatSchools uses argue that the harm of such scores goes beyond obscuring information. GreatSchools scores are displayed on the real estate site Zillow, potentially influencing where families — especially those with enough resources to have options — choose to move. That could have the effect of concentrating poorer students in lower-performing schools.

Overall, the state’s dashboard presents much of the same data as GreatSchools, it just avoids summarizing or making judgments about it:

Source: Minnesota Department of Education
Some committee testifiers said this provides parents more nuanced, high-quality information.

Others say the site is disorganized and doesn’t help parents make sense of the numbers. Comparing multiple schools requires digesting several screens of data.

“The dashboard is confusing. If the school is in the bottom 5 percent, most parents don’t know,” said Khulia Pringle, a parent and family advocate, in committee. “I think a one through five, A through F, or 0 to 100 rating system will give parents an easier way of understanding the data.”

Of course, any data-driven system necessarily only gives a partial picture of a school.

Parent polling suggests what they’re looking for from schools is yes, academics, said Jack Schneider, an assistant professor at the University of Massachusetts Lowell who studies school ratings and does not believe summative ratings capture schools ‘ ability to educate children well. But parents also care about critical thinking, creative inquiry, citizenship skills, artistic and creative skills, social and emotional wellbeing, student safety and school culture, among other things, some of which Schneider argues states should try to capture in school performance data.

“It’s a broad range of stuff that is not even remotely measured by a graduation rate or an average,” he said.

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Comments (30)

  1. Submitted by Pat Terry on 04/09/2019 - 11:34 am.

    The bill’s chief sponsor is Republican Roger Chamberlain. And EdAllies is a corporate education “reform” group funded by right-wing billionaires.

    • Submitted by Jim Bartholomew on 04/10/2019 - 10:37 am.

      Ignore the issue and go straight to name-calling….that’s your response? As the article mentions, the legislation would make the MN Department of Education’s (MDE) website more user-friendly, so people might actually use it – and all the information it has – rather than relying on 3rd party websites like GreatSchools.
      If people don’t find MDE’s website useful they’ll continue to rely on word-of-mouth, media reports and 3rd party vendors…..frankly, I’d rather have user-friendly (including school ratings) information from MDE.

  2. Submitted by Brian Scholin on 04/09/2019 - 12:17 pm.

    Good grief! Glad they’re only in control of the Senate. GreatLegislatures gives it a 1/10…

  3. Submitted by David Lundeen on 04/09/2019 - 01:23 pm.

    This is just giving Republicans more reasons to sponsor legislation harmful to public schools. It’s a terrible idea for a lot of reasons. Finland doesn’t rank their schools, and they have the best in the world for a lower cost than US schools. Go figure.

    • Submitted by Dennis Carlson on 04/09/2019 - 03:16 pm.

      David, if you give me a socialist country like Finland (or Germany where my grandchildren are going to school) I will give you good test scores. Also, they hold their teachers in very high regard which I also think helps a lot. Poverty in some of these socialist countries is around 3%. Recently visiting Nuremberg, Germany, I was struck by two things – no homeless people and no junk cars on the road.

      I will readily admit to being a socialist democrat but I think the Republican tirade against socialism is really short sighted. Socialism works in the field of education by educating ALL students – compared to the 50% that the US doesn’t educate in our urban schools.

      • Submitted by David Lundeen on 04/09/2019 - 04:35 pm.

        The Republican tirade against socialism isn’t based on what socialism actually is. It’s concerted propaganda effort to ensure there isn’t a crisis of democracy in which ordinary people speak up for what they want. The Republicans have framed socialism too often around counties like USSR and Venezuela. Neither were actually socialist.

    • Submitted by Paul Brandon on 04/09/2019 - 04:34 pm.

      But they pay their teachers competitive wages.

  4. Submitted by Jim Smola on 04/09/2019 - 03:00 pm.

    This is just another example of a Republican effort to undermine public schools.

  5. Submitted by Dennis Carlson on 04/09/2019 - 03:01 pm.

    The idea that summative testing results would be used in a star grading system is offensive to me. These tests are not only self serving for the college bound majority student, they also ignore the challenges that many of our minority kids face – recently immigrated, living in poverty, or homeless. Why not just look at the census demographics of our wealthier communities along with their college grad parents? Guess what, they will have the best schools. They will all get a 5 star rating. And that tells you what – nothing new for sure.

    I would favor an assessment system that would measure multiple intelligences, including career technical skills, soft skills, and other traits needed for employment. Many of our poorest students need support services (the community school model) and English as a Second Language classes. I would also support formative tests like the MAP tests that teachers use to see progress in individual students. If a star rating could be found to measure individual student growth among the state’s most challenging students I would see that it had some value.

    • Submitted by joe smith on 04/10/2019 - 10:10 am.

      Public school system is a tax payer funded monopoly that has run its course. For some reason folks on the Left are ok with this tax payer monopoly but are concerned over other privately monopolies. Why is that?

      • Submitted by David Lundeen on 04/10/2019 - 03:49 pm.

        It has not run its course. Clearly, you don’t value learning or education. Based on your attitude, it’s hard to see how this viewpoint has any credibility.

  6. Submitted by Joel Stegner on 04/09/2019 - 03:11 pm.

    Republicans are just looking for a way to slam poor urban schools that face the biggest challenges of the state, except perhaps for schools on Indian reservation. It is pretty easy to have a great school when half of your high schoolers parked their late model or new SUVs in parking lot. Sort of like the way it used to be in high school – one class competition with some schools literally 20 times as large as others. Guess who won most of the games? The big boys.

    Instead, rate schools based on they compete against their peers, with a ton of supporting data. And compare schools to their national data, whether it be inner city, suburb, near to metro, freestanding city and rural – as well as by charter, religious, or reservation. Also compare based on spending per student. Then parents will know what is good about their school and what needs to improve. Do we have any best in class schools in the country? If not, not time to pay ourselves on the back. And how do we perform against Scandinavia, Switzerland and Japan. Being the best isn’t that great if you aren’t working on being better.

    • Submitted by Dennis Carlson on 04/09/2019 - 04:05 pm.

      Joel, I would add that the Republican strategy is also to de-fund those urban schools because they are seen as failing. In Minnesota, Republican leadership has at least twice to my knowledge argued that all students should receive the same per pupil formula amount – their “equity” argument. Unfortunately, that IR legislative effort ignored ESL kids, lack of affordable housing, homelessness, insufficient livable wages, and concentration of poverty. Also, they will say time and time again that these urban schools will never have enough money so why give them more. I always wonder – so you’re saying less money is the answer and that strategy will help them get better.

      The one measurement I would like to see urban schools focus on is how schools can show progress in our English Language Learners. If schools can show measurable progress in high school students that have recently immigrated to the US in the last few years – that could be valuable data and worth considering by immigrant parents shopping for a good school. I recently interviewed a number of Wellstone International High School (MPS) students. They had only been in the US for 2 or 3 years. Their grades (C or above) and their grasp of the English language was impressive. I would love to compare data on urban schools on how well they do with these ESL students.

  7. Submitted by Lynnell Mickelsen on 04/09/2019 - 04:49 pm.

    I’m a progressive Democrat and I agree with rating schools on a 1-10 or 1-100 scale AND also providing more nuanced information for any parent who wants to dive in.

    In my experience, the current state dashboard–supposedly a model of nuance—is designed to hide the fact that most of the students certain schools cannot do work at their grade level and/or fail to make a year’s worth of academic progress.

    I’m a former journalist. I have a master’s degree. I’m used to looking at charts and data—-and I have found it really hard to assess and compare schools at the state’s website. Heck, it’s almost like it was DESIGNED to be difficult. Or at least to make it very hard for parents to see if a school is doing a good job with the students that it has.

    Education is complicated. But whether or not a student can read or do math on their grade level is not complicated. Ditto for whether or not students are making about a year’s worth of academic progress. Parents should be able to easily access this information about their own students–as well as the average rates for the school at large.

    • Submitted by David Lundeen on 04/10/2019 - 08:05 am.

      Education is not complicated. It’s rather simple. What’s complicated is that schools, politicians and principals can’t provide a clear explanation as to how schools should function and what they should provide to students and communities.

      What’s complicated are the artificial and arbitrary rankings that have been created. It’s changed Education into Education Inc, all to the detrimental of students and communities.

    • Submitted by Pat Terry on 04/10/2019 - 11:03 am.

      Actual progressives oppose this nonsense. Again, the fact its being pushed by a right-wing Republican and right-wing education “reform” groups should be instructive. These are the people who want to keep good teachers away from poverty-laden schools by arbitrarily punishing them for student test scores. These are the the people who want to destroy public education. These are the Betsy DeVos people.

      I get that the rise of Donald Trump has made nuance a dirty word. But not everyone feels that nuance and complexity should be ignored at the expense of coming up with a simple and utterly meaningless scoring of schools.

    • Submitted by Pat Terry on 04/10/2019 - 11:18 am.

      Also, maybe you missed the memo. Daniel Sellers has been testifying with the Republican sponsor of this. The education “reform” crowd no longer has to pretend they are progressives or even Democrats.

  8. Submitted by joe smith on 04/09/2019 - 05:02 pm.

    When a school district has less than 50% of its students proficient in math, reading and writing, it is not seen as failing, they are flat out failing. Forget grading schools, just make sure public schools don’t push children along (for the money) from 1st to 2nd grade without being ready. Once public schools start pushing students through without being prepared, the child never catches up.

    • Submitted by David Lundeen on 04/09/2019 - 05:25 pm.

      This argument had been made so many times. But it never offers any solutions. The solutions are quite easy. Please don’t imply any further how schools are doing it for money, and all the subsequent implications that go with it, i.e paying for lazy teachers pensions.

      • Submitted by joe smith on 04/10/2019 - 10:54 pm.

        Solution: children that are struggling are put in a special class where the basics of phonic learning reading and writing are taught plus basic principles of math are taught. The child doesn’t advance grades until the basic standards are met.
        Children are not run through the system for the price they bring to the district, as is happening in Mpls public schools.

        • Submitted by David Lundeen on 04/11/2019 - 11:21 am.

          Your response clearly negates your initial grievance. If students are not socially promoted to the next grade, they are still enrolled in school and thus the school receives money from the state for those students. Next, as someone who has how devastating budget cuts can be in a school, having a remedial class for these students lagging behind in reading or math would require extra teachers and resources. That costs money. Quite simply, you have proposed a solution which would spend more money.

          I’ve already anticipated your next response. We should reduce funding then if the school cannot adequately teach students and get them to the appropriate math/reading level. Well, this was extensively done under the No Child Left Behind Act and it just created worse problem and further inequities.

  9. Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 04/10/2019 - 08:17 am.

    It’s nice to see such a negative response to this ridiculous assault on public education. However I would remind everyone that liberals in the US long ago signed on to this consumerist education regime.

    The whole idea that we would create “competitive” schools was the very foundation of the charter movement. Unfortunately traditional public schools have fallen into the same strategy. Public schools are the idea that parents send their kids to the public schools in their own cities; and that those schools have a mission to provide state of the art educations to all who sit their classrooms. This notion of public school has long since given way to cacophony of noise generated by “branding” that markets our schools to attract more students rather than simply teach all those who show up.

    This idea that schools should be graded for easy consumer reference is simply the logical conclusion of a mentality that sees schools as just one among many consumer choices. These consumer choices are subject to whatever branding and marketing any given school can muster, and the more resources we devote to “competition” the more persistent our educations gaps are, and the further our education system sinks into the abyss.

    After decades of branding and market competition there is absolutely NO evidence that our educations system has actually improved. We can’t blame all of this on Republicans, American liberals obsessed with their children’s resumes share complete responsibility.

  10. Submitted by Ray Schoch on 04/10/2019 - 08:48 am.

    Instead of my usual long-winded essay in defense of public schools and against wrong-headed notions like the one Greta describes, I’ll just say that a genuine education is an option that children can choose – or not. The system Greta describes will be, for far too many parents and public officials, not the starting point for discussion, but the ending point, and it relies, curiously, not on the skills and efforts of classroom practitioners and their administrative assistants, but on the not-always-reliable efforts of children, who in almost any other context would be viewed as not experienced and / or responsible enough to make informed decisions.

  11. Submitted by Hiram Foster on 04/11/2019 - 08:15 am.

    Does this mean we give Blake School an “F” in years it doesn’t send enough kids to Harvard?

  12. Submitted by Kent Fralish on 04/12/2019 - 02:14 pm.

    When do we grade the other half of the equation, Parents?

    • Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 04/14/2019 - 09:07 am.

      Kent, any parent that would lend credence to this scoring system would get an “F”. At the end of the day we have a basic statistical error that assumes this general data predicts individual student achievement.

      The biggest myth of all this school choice nonsense is that individual performance is determined by generalized school data. Sure we get a lot of brand loyalty from charter parents this way, they “love” their schools, but the fact is that most of their kids would have done just as well if not better in a “traditional” public school, or almost any school in Minnesota.

  13. Submitted by Mark Gruben on 04/15/2019 - 02:45 am.

    The idea of giving school a single letter grade, or numeric score, is ridiculous for several reasons. For one thing, it’s unreasonable and unfair to compare Big Lake High School (835 students) with Bigfork High School (59 students) on the exact same criteria. Big Lake is much larger, so it naturally has more to offer….but does that make Big Lake a better school? There is simply no way to take a particular school’s pros and cons, take into account all of the many, many variables at work, and reduce it all to a letter grade – by which it can (or should) be compared to any other school in the state. Let’s be honest: this isn’t about making things simpler for parents. This is about forcing schools to compete against each other on an uneven playing field, and in that sense no school would really measure up. The result? More attacks on public education, and further justification for draining money from public schools in the form of vouchers. By looking at the GreatSchools map of Minneapolis, which accompanied the article, one could surmise that , other than one school in Golden Valley, and another in St. Anthony, every school in the city is abysmal. Would any sensible parent sent his/her child to such a school? Of course not! That parent will soon be demanding a voucher, to send the child to a “better” school.

  14. Submitted by Terry Frawley on 04/16/2019 - 11:12 am.

    The biggest factor that is not being considered is kindergarten readiness. If a district has substantial poverty and English Language Learners, it will not score as well (with any metric) as a district in affluent areas. Two large districts Wayzata graduate rate is over 95%, Minneapolis Public Schools graduation rate is 66%. The dynamics of these two districts are different. Kindergarten Readiness statistics would help us understand this. Even though we have paid for them for years, they are not available. To top that off Universal Pre-Kindergarten is a waste of taxpayer dollars. Consider 18 school districts graduate 100% of their students, 84 graduates over 95%.
    If you are going to rate school start with Kindergarten Readiness and go from there.
    This is a solvable problem and once solved we can see if there is a problem in some of our schools.

  15. Submitted by Terry Frawley on 04/16/2019 - 03:17 pm.

    The most significant factor that is not being considered is kindergarten readiness. If a district has substantial poverty and English Language Learners, it will not score as well (with any metric) as a district in affluent areas. Two large districts Wayzata graduate rate is over 95%, Minneapolis Public Schools graduation rate is 66%. The dynamics of these two districts are different. Kindergarten Readiness statistics would help us understand this. Even though we have paid for them for years, they are not available. To top that off Universal Pre-Kindergarten is a waste of taxpayer dollars. Consider 18 school districts graduate 100% of their students, 84 graduates over 95%.
    If you are going to rate school start with Kindergarten Readiness and go from there.

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