July 24, 2017

A Call for Transparency in MN’s ESSA Plan

Last week, the Minnesota Department of Education (MDE) presented to the Legislature its draft plan for the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), the new federal law replacing No Child Left Behind. At the hearing, advocates—myself included—shared reflections on the plan, and ideas to improve it. In particular, I believe two of the most important elements of any ESSA plan are identifying schools in need of improvement, and empowering parents and communities with the data so they can advocate on behalf of students. Having put a microscope to these elements of MDE’s draft ESSA plan, I see a few bright spots, as well as concerns that I hope MDE will address in order to strengthen the plan for Minnesota students and families.

SCHOOL IDENTIFICATION

MDE is proposing a completely new system for evaluating schools that differs not just from what we’ve been doing, but also from what we’re seeing other states do. One of the core questions under ESSA—and one of the new state flexibilities—is the opportunity to consider factors beyond test scores as we evaluate school quality. Most states will use this opportunity to develop an aggregate score for each school, giving weight to each factor stakeholders determine important. When you look at school performance at a glance in those states, you won’t be looking at a single metric like test proficiency or graduation, but a deeper metric that gives a more holistic assessment at-a-glance.

Rather than build a composite score for all schools, MDE has proposed using performance and quality metrics as check points; to be flagged for improvement, schools must do worse than their peers at each one of these check points. While this sounds clean and simple, in many ways it fails to consider all the factors that feed into school quality in a holistic way (you can read more in my testimony from last week’s hearing). The biggest problem is that for most schools, this new “funnel” system won’t provide any signal about performance at all. Some schools will be flagged as in need of improvement, while most schools will have no designation whatsoever.

ACCOUNTABILITY & TRANSPARENCY

If the funnel system provides little useful information to the public, that elevates the importance of having a strong public reporting system for all schools across the state. So, what will that look like? As of now, that’s still an open question. MDE plans to re-convene stakeholders over the coming year to develop the vision for a data dashboard that will house a variety of academic and school quality metrics.

It’s important that this dashboard be more than just a data dump. Communities need access to detailed information, but that information must be accompanied by clear at-a-glance signals and summaries to help make sense of this data. For example: How does a school compare to others in the state, and to comparable peers? How is the school performing relative to performance goals?

In a world where information is readily available, we should make sure that the information we’re communicating to families and communities about our schools is accurate, meaningful, and actionable. Under ESSA, we have an opportunity to create a powerful tool for Minnesota families, but unless and until that happens, communities will be largely in the dark on school performance.

NOW WHAT?

MDE will release a formal draft of the state’s ESSA plan on Aug. 1, after which organizations and individuals will have the chance to submit public comment, on the issues detailed above and many others. In the coming weeks, we’ll post additional updates, including how to share your feedback with MDE, either at one of the public meetings MDE will host across the state in mid-August, or through the formal comment process. Follow us on Facebook and Twitter, where we’ll keep you in the loop on opportunities to advocate for an ESSA plan that will best serve Minnesota students, schools, and families.