MARSHALL - Minnesota Education Commissioner Brenda Cassellius on Friday compared students being expected to live up to rigid No Child Left Behind standards to hockey players told that if they don't score a hat trick in every game they would be considered a failure. Now that Minnesota has been approved for a waiver from NCLB, that burden has been lifted, she said.
"I might be doing well on the ice but I keep getting told I'm a failure; as a matter of fact, we might have a winning team but we're still called failures," she said. "This is why No Child Left Behind is broken."
No Child Left Behind, a test-driven federal law that requires all students to be proficient in reading and math by 2014, has come under widespread criticism from many states. Ten of them, including Minnesota, were granted waivers Thursday by President Barack Obama that strips away federal requirements and gives schools more flexibility in teaching its students. And while federal legislation will be debated in Washington in the future, these 10 states have been granted the authority to set up their own plans for their schools.
"This will allow Minnesota to have some representation for its schools and flexibility, Cassellius said. The No Child Left Behind law has just not gotten us the results we had hoped for."
But just because schools in Minnesota are off the NCLB hook and won't have to deal with the realization they are failing, they will still be watched for progress and held accountable when it comes to student and teacher performance.
Schools will continue to be put to the task in terms of preparing children for higher education, setting new targets for improving achievement among all students, and developing prudent teacher and principal evaluation systems, all while they reward the best performing schools and focus on helping the ones doing the worst.
Schools in Minnesota will now be placed into one of several categories based on performance measures like graduation rate and reducing achievement gaps. Under a new plan the top 15 percent of schools would be designated Reward Schools, and publicly recognized for their performance. The bottom 5 percent of schools would be designated Priority Schools, and work directly with the state to improve their performance. Also, 10 percent of schools contributing to state achievement gaps would be designated Focus Schools. Those schools would work together with their districts and the state to address the needs of low-performing student groups, including minority students, students from low-income families and special education students.
Schools will be tested annually but will have more flexibility in how they spend federal dollars.
Cassellius said more of the onus will fall on the schools and communities under the new program given that they will have more of a say when it comes to improving their schools.
"Of course, with more power comes more responsibility for local communities," she said. "We will require that schools have greater parent engagement, greater community engagement, because these have to be local decisions and strategies."
Cassellius said only schools receiving Title I federal education funding would be considered for reward, priority or focus designation. Adequate Yearly Progress will continue to be tracked and reported as part of the goal of reducing the achievement gap in schools.
"We'll still report AYP along with our multiple measurement rating," said Sam Kramer, a federal education policy specialist. "AYP is really a way for us to take the temperature of our schools on a local and state level. Previously, not making AYP had major implications on finance and school improvements; we won't have those implications now."
A target date of six years has been set for schools to reduce the achievement gap by 50 percent.
This past year, 1,056, or 47 percent, of Minnesota's 2,255 schools failed to make the grade under NCLB.
Using test results from the Minnesota Comprehensive Assessments (MCAs), the state reported that 54 percent of high schools, 66 percent of middle schools and 45 percent of elementary schools didn't make AYP in 2011.