Analysis: How Are Minnesota’s Progressives Tackling School Inequity? By Choking Off Data Exposing Disparities

The other day my older son told me a revealing story about his final days as a student in Minneapolis Public Schools:

One day last spring, one of his teachers informed the class that if they wanted to take the state science exams, they were welcome to go down to the office and schedule a time. This was the International Baccalaureate section of a hard science course, a dozen kids who presumably would make Southwest High School and its teachers look shiny and successful. And who were all, at the time, prepping for a solid month of IB testing — something the school brags about in its marketing efforts.

As he talked, I looked up the recently released results of the assessments. At his school 43 kids, or a little more than a tenth of the class, took the Minnesota Comprehensive Assessments in math. Sixty-one 10th-graders took the reading test. Results involving fewer than 10 students are not reported publicly for privacy reasons; too few 11th graders to count took the math test.

So consider for a moment: Only 104 of about 1,400 kids who were supposed to take the test did.

And what have we heard about it from the higher-ups? Zip.

This is the third year running in which district and state leaders have done nothing when confronted with abundant evidence that teachers are putting up roadblocks to the collection of data. Honestly, when fewer than 10 kids take the math test, how many people had to turn a blind eye — or collude — all the way up to the highest levels of the education system?

Three years ago, in 10th grade, my son’s teachers repeatedly badgered him about the fact that he hadn’t submitted an opt-out form, with one going so far as to stand in the door demanding to know why he was willing to take the test.

Two years ago, students were simply never called out of classes to take the math test.

And no, I am not basing this analysis solely on my son’s experience. I’ve talked to other parents and adults in the buildings and in advocacy circles, and I’m fairly confident teachers who are in favor of opt-out have been emboldened to make it opt-in instead.

I realize there are far more pressing crises today: Residents across the Caribbean are facing another devastating hurricane, and people in Guam must contend with the knowledge that they might be North Korea’s literal first strike in an apocalyptic staring contest. But even if it seems like we have bigger fish to fry, Americans have historically regarded public schools as the place where all children acquire the knowledge to allow them to participate meaningfully in democracy.

That those schools are both equitable and excellent is something generations have linked to our common welfare. Before we had the data, we could only guess whether we had either excellence or equity. Now we have information, and it’s clear the republic’s schools have a reliable supply of neither.

It’s interesting what didn’t happen last month in the wake of news that reading and math scores among Minnesota students are, for the umpteeneth year in a row, flat.

Not much, is what happened.

There was no outrage. Minneapolis Superintendent Ed Graff put out a strong statement decrying the need for change. His brand-new St. Paul counterpart let a deputy tackle the bad news — in a four-paragraph statement. And the state’s education commissioner noted, much the way a parent consoles a youngster who had an off day, that test results aren’t everything.

There was no mention of individual schools that are standouts and what they’re doing right that other schools could copy. The Star Tribune seems to have given up the practice of publishing lists of “odds-beaters,” Minneapolis and St. Paul schools with both high test scores and concentrated poverty.

A little back-of-the-envelope math is in order. In 2017, 12,112 Minnesota parents and students formally opted out of the tests. This is the first year the state required schools to distinguish who signed the requisite “refusal” paperwork, the bigs or the littles.

In 10,564 instances it was parents, in the rest students. Of the total, 5,518 were 10th- and 11th-graders. Significant, but a drop in the bucket when you consider that there are 850,000 public school students in Minnesota.

There’s no way parent and student refusals are the main issue. At just four of Minneapolis’ mainline high schools — Southwest, South, Edison and Roosevelt — just 1,214 of 5,492 students sat for exams.

It’s a huge problem on a number of levels. It makes it hard to evaluate teachers, which surveys of opt-out adherents identify as the single largest motivator. It makes it hard to identify schools where kids aren’t getting the skills they’ll need to succeed as adults — and, even more problematically, the schools where children with similar challenges are flourishing.

To this I would add: It symbolizes a huge barrier to efforts to transform large school systems everywhere. In what other field is it acceptable that a significant swath of the workforce just decides not to engage with leadership, much less pull in the same direction?

I do understand that there are places where the assessments are demoralizing for students. Where administrators are obsessed with pre-tests and other drills and where the adult atmosphere around the topics compounds the depression.

But there are also schools where students have become accustomed to looking at their own data and participating in choosing strategies for acquiring missing skills or attaining the scores that will get them into a good college. There are places where the numbers are not presented or digested as drinking from a fire hose of failure.

And did I mention the backdrop here, where the school’s top dozen science students likely didn’t get themselves down to the office to opt in because they were working up to a solid month of Advanced Placement and IB exams — which, far from being bemoaned, are exalted?

I doubt the higher-ups have the slightest idea what to do about the fact that teachers in a number of schools are, to give everyone the extreme benefit of the doubt, putting up roadblocks to the administration of the tests. And principals, area superintendents, test monitors, and other responsible folks aren’t confronting them.

Which is a tidy segue back to repeating what for me is the most salient point: We have success stories, if not an appetite for appreciating their lessons. Do those of us who purport to care so much about each and every kid, and the equity and excellence of the schools that prepare them for participation in public life, really get to call ourselves progressives?

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