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Analysis: An ESSA Tragedy in Minnesota, as State Launches Plan to Collect a River of Data — and then Bury It

By Beth Hawkins | August 18, 2017

This analysis originally appeared at BethHawkins.org; you can join Beth’s e-mail list here.

Confidential to the Denizens of Lake Wobegon: You know that whole Garrison Keillor shtick about all the kids being above average actually makes fun of our collective tendency to engage in magical thinking, right?

What’s that? You get that the shtick is a shtick—but your kid really is one of the above average ones.

You willing to bank their future on that?

For the second year in a row, the parent resource hub Learning Heroes reports that Americans dramatically overestimate their kids’ academic achievement. Ninety percent of us believe our kids are on track in school, while in fact an apples-to-apples test administered to a cross-section of U.S. students every four years puts the number at one in three.

It astounds me that increasingly the reaction to news such as this—particularly among affluent white parents and at least here in the Twin Cities many of the educators who staff their schools—is to attempt to get rid of the flow of data. Or failing that, to bury the numbers.

I mean, we’re talking about the very same class of people for whom worrying about the kids’ economic and social advantages is a competitive sport. And yet here we are, in perfect Minnesota form, responding to a federal law requiring an overhaul of the way we track schools’ performance by creating a new system that will collect terrific data but minimize its practical uses—to help children in poverty and with disabilities.

On August 1, the Minnesota Department of Education released a draft of the state’s new school accountability plan, the proposed Northstar Excellence and Equity System. State officials are spending the month taking in public feedback on the plan, which is due to the U.S. Department of Education in October. After a process that’s morphing in response to controversy, the plan will become the system for making sure our tax dollars are in fact being used to our children’s benefit.

There are some things to celebrate in the proposed plan, which makes its weaknesses all the more frustrating. It’s as if the Mayo Clinic, with its world-class array of diagnostic tools and expertise, decided to start attempting to cure patients by laying on hands.

The 2015 federal law propelling the change, the Every Student Succeeds Act, requires states to continue to administer annual assessments in reading, math and sciences at eight times in each student’s academic career and to dice the numbers according to a variety of demographics, including race, English-language proficiency and poverty.

Starting next year, Minnesota will administer the tests in Spanish, Somali and Hmong, in addition to English, and will begin the process of separating out—disaggregating, for the data geeks in the room—scores not just by broad racial and ethnic designations, such as Asian American, but by specific groups, such as Lao, Vietnamese, Chinese, etc.

The state will also prod teachers to stop encouraging students to opt out of taking the tests and schools and districts to stop turning a blind eye by counting students who don’t sit for the exams and lack a valid medical excuse as not proficient.

Further—and this is pretty commendable—achievement for every student subgroup in a school counts equally. In the past schools and districts with very small populations of students with challenges have been rated highly based solely on the performance of affluent student performance, creating little incentive to worry about, say, Native American students or students with disabilities. This provision will push schools to attend to all kids.

There’s more, but probably not that’s of much interest to anyone whose contacts list doesn’t include a handful of psychometricians. (The nerds among us might want to click through to testimony by the advocacy group EdAllies on the topic.)

Commendable as the more sophisticated data collection is, the flip side threatens to swamp the possibility that the information will be used to make Minnesotans smarter about their schools. There are two big problems, the first being that there will be no single number, score or rating that will give the public an idea how well the school down the street will serve their child.

Which means, of course, that the school down the street can tell you your kid is doing great and you may just have to take their word for it. Or not: Minneapolis Public Schools–just to pick a district with a few high-performing wealthy schools, lots of underperformers and little stomach for tough talk about equity–no longer makes school performance available to parents trying to pick a school, for example. You have to know to look for the data in the district’s strategic plan “dashboard,” which you also need to know how to navigate.

From a policy standpoint, the other problem is huge. The new federal law requires states to intervene in at least the lowest-performing 5 percent of schools. Minnesota proposes to use something called a “decision funnel” to identify precisely 5 percent. And it will use attendance as a tie-breaker if multiple schools are doing as poorly as one another.

So a school can be doing terribly and not qualify for intervention if another school is doing even marginally worse. Equally problematic, a school can stop receiving the outside services that are to be directed to the bottom 5 percent if another school drops in the rankings. This means potentially hundreds of schools where kids aren’t able to read or perform math at grade level won’t have to re-examine their practices at all.

Unless of course the adults in their halls are disturbed by the data. And we know a willingness to dig into data is something that sets apart the schools that are getting outsized gains for Minnesota’s most fragile students.

Which is a final issue with the Northstar Excellence and Equity System: It does not propose to identify any north stars, any schools or classrooms where amazing things are happening.

In the draft plan, state officials say they will continue to work toward a mechanism for making information understandable and available to the public. I don’t know about you, but I have little faith that there’s anything even opaque, much less transparent, in the works.

The tragedy being that the chattering classes can probably get away with continuing to assume that all Minnesota kids are above average, while the children who have never been part of the Lake Wobegon narrative become less and less visible. Maybe, just maybe, it’s time to convince middle- and upper-class white Minnesota liberals they’ve got skin in the game, too.

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