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Other View: Achievement gap de-emphasized by new school ratings

The new Minnesota school-rating system offers a broader view of school performance than in the past ("School accountability: more than a test," Aug. 30). But it seems to de-emphasize the critical issue of the achievement gap between white students and students of color.

For years, the achievement gap has been a top concern among Minnesota educators and education policymakers at the Capitol, so an about-face on this issue has to be troubling to education stakeholders, including the business community.

Measuring the achievement gap won't go away, but the new system calls on education officials to reframe the issue to one of supporting the problem rather than calling attention to it. The new system will still measure test scores of different groups, like students of color and English language learners, but it won't compare them to white student scores. It sounds like a "rebranding" of the issue that ultimately will soften the approach to solving it.

Minnesota Education Commissioner Brenda Cassellius says the new rating system moves from a "shame-based punishment" system to one of "continuous improvement." It's also important to keep in mind that the state was required by federal law to change its evaluation approach based on the "Every Student Succeeds Act."

But in 2012, Minnesota had a goal of closing the achievement gap by half by 2017. That didn't happen. In fact, the achievement gap hardly budged from 2012 to 2017. And there appears to be no such goal with the new measuring system.

There has been better news on graduation rates, where achievement gaps between black students and white students narrowed by about 3 percent last year, but there remains an 18 percentage point difference between students of color and white students.

The new "North Star" accountability system measures Minnesota Comprehensive Assessment test scores, improvement in test scores, progress in English Learning students in proficiency, graduation rates and regular attendance at school. Attendance should be a given that's mostly controlled by parents, and it seems out of place as an academic performance measure. We all remember people who showed up to school, but didn't get much out of it.

The new system also seems to create more support for schools at varying levels of success and rewards schools for high achievement by giving them a badge for their website.

Education leaders say the new North Star system was a product of listening sessions around the state from various stakeholder groups, including the 11 Native American sovereign communities. The education leaders say the new assessment also changes a previously "misguided" heavy focus on test scores and as schools move away from that fixation all students will have broader opportunities for a more well-rounded education.

That's all well and good, but it seems proficiency in math, reading and sciences will continue to be critical to the workforce of the future. Much of that workforce, we know, will be people of color and new immigrants.

Minnesota's Constitution calls for an equal education for all and that doesn't seem to be kept in mind as we de-emphasize the achievement gap. We owe it to students of color to support their growth in achieving competitive skills in an increasingly competitive workforce and we should be able to tell the taxpayers how their $15 billion a year is achieving that.

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