Charlie Weaver: State schools score better – like magic

“Poof” isn’t normally the sound you hear when a state agency uploads a new database to its website. But if you listened closely as the Minnesota Department of Education uploaded its new school rankings database last month, that’s exactly what you heard. Why is that?

Because with the release of the state’s new Multiple Measurements Rating system (MMR), the number of schools that are red-flagged because their students aren’t making adequate yearly progress in reading and math suddenly dropped from the 1,056 identified in 2011 under the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) law to an astonishing 127 in 2012. Poof!

Either a thousand elementary, middle and high schools suddenly and collectively erased stubborn achievement gaps and radically upped test scores in the last 12 months, or someone is getting cute with the numbers.

One of the key goals of NCLB was the expectation that all students would be able to read and do math at grade level. These rigorous standards — developed by Minnesota educators — were coupled with measures to ensure that schools where students failed to meet that goal were held accountable. While NCLB was not without flaws, the law was doing its part to highlight where changes needed to be made.

Sadly, the new MMR system represents a retreat from accountability that was neither sudden nor surprising. Last summer, as department officials were in the initial stages of requesting an NCLB waiver from the federal Department of Education, I warned on these pages (“Is education measuring up?” Aug. 23, 2011) that “all too often, when the needs of the student come into conflict with the needs of the education system, the system wins.”

And so, while the department’s first attempt at securing a waiver from NCLB failed, eventually — as it usually does — the system prevailed. If the consequences weren’t so serious, maybe this sleight-of-hand, and the back-patting quotes from education officials that followed, would be funny.

But it isn’t.

Under MMR, part of a school’s grade is now based on student improvement as measured against similar groups of students. What this means is that even if students in a school fail to meet basic standards, it can appear that the school is doing well simply because there was improvement. In effect, the state has determined that competency is no longer the most important factor in measuring student performance.

The employers I work with every day, companies with global operations who are constantly competing for top talent, need to know that Minnesota high school graduates have certain skills — not that they did a little better than the statewide average. Exempting schools and our students from basic standards sets them up for failure in the future and condemns many of them — particularly minority students — to a permanent underclass.

Minnesota’s achievement gap — the difference in academic performance between white students and students of color — is one of the worst in the nation. (The plight of black students in Minneapolis schools is particularly horrific.) But rather than shining a light on schools that need help closing the gap, education officials have adopted a rating system that makes it appear that Minnesota schools are doing better than they actually are.

Minnesotans need to know that every student who graduates from our schools will be prepared for postsecondary education or will be able to compete for a job. Tough accountability standards and clear measurement criteria will do that; MMR will not.


Charlie Weaver is the executive director of the Minnesota Business Partnership, which represents more than 100 CEOs from Minnesota’s largest employers