GOP lawmakers ask feds to reject Minnesota school accountability plan

Published 7:05 pm Friday, October 20, 2017

By Solvejg Wastvedt, Minnesota Public Radio News

Two of Minnesota’s Republican legislative leaders have asked the federal Department of Education to reject the state’s recently-submitted plan for school accountability.

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Rep. Sondra Erickson, R-Princeton, and Rep. Jenifer Loon, R-Eden Prairie, wrote in a letter that parts of the plan “threaten the delivery of innovative instruction in Minnesota.”

The letter reveals disagreement about how to measure school performance and how much to crack down on low performers.

It’s a question that has been debated by education officials in Minnesota and across the country since the early 2000s. The 2002 federal No Child Left Behind law aimed to ramp up consequences for schools labeled failing. But critics argued it was strict in the wrong ways and didn’t really promote quality education.

Now, Erickson and Loon said Minnesota has erred yet again with a plan crafted in response to the 2015 federal replacement for No Child Left Behind.

The legislators said the plan’s three-step process for labeling low-performing schools is overly complex. Schools would be sorted based on test scores, proficiency for English learners, graduation rates and attendance. Schools would gradually be narrowed down to identify the lowest performers on those measures.

Loon and Erickson advocated instead for a report card with a single rating such as an “A” to “F” grade.

“We just want to make sure that this is a plan that everyone understands what the goals are (and) what will happen if you’re identified as a school that is not providing the education we all expect,” Loon said.

Minnesota Education Commissioner Brenda Cassellius said the three-step process is actually easier to understand and “doesn’t mask any one part and hide where disparities exist.”

Erickson and Loon also want clearer interventions for low-performing schools. “It is extremely difficult to sort through all of the different kinds of supports listed,” they wrote.

Among other suggestions, the letter advocated increasing school choice options at persistent low-performers. That idea might find a sympathetic audience with U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos, who has championed charter and private schools.

“In the life span of a child we’ve got a limited number of years to try to help them get off on the right foot,” Loon said. As written, Minnesota’s plan makes increased choice an optional step for school districts.

Erickson and Loon also accused the Education Department of a covert attempt to move away from state standardized tests known as the Minnesota Comprehensive Assessments in favor of the national ACT or SAT college entrance exams.

Cassellius denied the claim. “We never had the discussion of using an alternate assessment,” she said.

Loon said so far she has not received a federal response to the letter. The federal Department of Education did not respond to a request for comment from MPR News.

The department has 120 days to respond to Minnesota’s plan.

“If Secretary DeVos is true to her word and how she has been with all the other approvals of the states, I think she will probably approve the Minnesota plan,” Cassellius said.