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Cassellius Gets It Right

November 09, 2011 By Michael J. Diedrich, Policy Associate

Official policy statements usually aren't the most exciting reads. However, Minnesota Commissioner of Education Brenda Cassellius's statement to the House K-12 Finance Committee hits just about every point you could hope for when summarizing Minnesota's state of education.

I still strongly recommend reading the statement (PDF).

The Bush-era No Child Left Behind (NCLB) law is a textbook example of good intentions spoiled by bad policy. The problem it sought to address—the unjust achievement gap that helps perpetuate poverty in the United States—is a worthy one, and as Commissioner Cassellius explained, Minnesota's achievement gap hasn't improved much at all in 20 years. From the get-go, however, NCLB sported some significant design flaws.

For one, it fell into the “all data is good data” trap. By emphasizing data from state-created tests of math and reading proficiency, NCLB elevated these tests' importance beyond anything they could possibly be designed to do. State tests like the Minnesota Comprehensive Assessments (MCAs) offer a snapshot of how a system as a whole is doing in the measured areas. NCLB, however, managed to create a mindset that assumes these tests can measure total educational quality at the state, district, school, and classroom level.

This is just not the case. For one, student proficiency in math and reading is no proof of proficiency in science, social studies, writing, or any of the other subjects I would hope our schools also emphasize.

What's more, the accuracy of that data when applied to smaller samples – say, one teacher's class – is questionable (to say the least). The once-a-year snapshot of the MCA is also not enough to understand a teacher's impact. Commissioner Cassellius emphasized the growth model in Minnesota's statutes that partially alleviates this at the school and district level, but we simply do not have the system-wide tools we'd need to measure every teacher's annual effect on their students in the subject or subjects they teach. Using the MCAs as a surrogate does a disservice to our educators, our understanding of true educational quality, and the very idea of accurate measurement.

NCLB's prescribed use of this data compounds the problem. Commissioner Cassellius observed that over 70 percent of Minnesota's districts have at least one school not making Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP) under NCLB's definition. This number will continue to increase with time, as the 2014 deadline for 100% student proficiency approaches.

Despite this huge percentage of “failing” districts, Minnesota continues to lead the country in ACT scores and (despite the slippage caused by conservative defunding of schools) maintains a respectable position amongst the states in National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) scores. Clearly, something is wrong with NCLB's labeling system.

This is where the crux of the problem arises. NCLB managed to conflate the ambitious but worthy goal of universal student proficiency with a profoundly wrong-headed system for measuring and responding to current performance levels.

Now, any attempt to cushion the blow of statistical nonsense delivered by NCLB is labeled as opposition to “accountability.” This is dangerous rhetorical ground, as it implies that any and all academic deficiencies are the result of schools and teachers trying to dodge their responsibilities.

Here, too, Cassellius brought some illumination. In making the case for much-needed expansion of early childhood offerings, Cassellius summed up the situation thusly: “Economic circumstances can limit a child’s opportunity and access to appropriate health care and high-quality education.”

She pointed to Minnesota's child poverty rate—a disturbing 15-20 percent—and explained how that disproportionately affects the racial groups that tend to trail in standardized tests.

In this day and age, it takes courage to tell a panel of conservative accountability-bots that, yes, we really do need to address poverty by digging into the very real health and educational effects that correlate with being born into an environment of scarcity. Acknowledging poverty is not excuse-making. Instead, it is a critical part of adopting a more strategic approach to closing the achievement gap.

Cassellius's testimony carries real lessons for other policymakers. It is possible to fight to close the achievement gap while acknowledging the limitations of our current measurement tools. It is possible to talk about poverty without lowering the expectations for our schools or students. We ought to repeat these lessons at every opportunity. It is time for a new stage in education reform, one that is capable of acknowledging the limitations of what has gone before while keeping its focus on improving outcomes for all of our students.

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  • Carlos Mariani says:

    November 11, 2011 at 2:15 pm

    I certainly agree with the major view expressed here and so eloquently stated in the final paragraph, i.e. that it is possible to fight racial disparities in k12 education while acknowledging the limitations of our present measurement tools and that it is possible to talk about poverty without lowering expectations.

    I would go further and say that is not only possible to do this but absolutely necessary. Commissioner Cassellius understands this and as such Minnesota is fortunate to have her leading our state education department instead of having yet another leader blindly following the discredited elements of NCLB. High among these is the use of a fixed in time, single measurement tool that attempts to evaluate a mixture of things ranging from individual student performance to teacher performance to rating the success of an entire school.

    And, as if this simplistic approach of using standardized tests as the “all in one” tool to interpret different aspects of learning and instruction isn’t flawed enough, MN now attaches high stakes outcomes to that variety of elements based on that single measurement. This “one size should fit all” approach is used to determine whether a student can graduate from high school - regardless of how well she does in other coursework - and to whether a school should send its federal dollars to private, for-profit companies because one student group measured poorly on that single testing tool. This year, some policymakers wanted to use that same single tool to also determine a teacher’s salary and tenure.

    As Chair of the House K12 Education Policy Committee from 2007 - 2010,  I began a long overdue process of challenging the NCLB methodology. First, we ended Governor Pawlenty’s harmful “school on a stick” approach that he unveiled at the State Fair and that graded schools according to how they did according to NCLB. We passed Rep. Brynaert’s proposal to use a growth measure in reporting progress at our schools, although Pawlenty vetoed the bill.

    And we stopped - for the time being - from having the state refuse diplomas to thousands of high school seniors who were not going to be able to demonstrate math proficiency based on one single test. We called for the use of multiple measures, rigorous but not dependent on one test alone to determine student success.

    And for our reward we were wrongly accused, as this article points out will happen, of backing way from accountability.

    Still, the resistance to a flawed NCLB has a strong progressive tradition in Minnesota. This is not a resistance to the goals of NCLB - of holding our education system accountable for the success of all students regardless of race, income and physical ability. Progressive resistance seeks a smarter, fairer accountability based on sound research. That means there is indeed a legitimate role for the kind of tests this article criticizes but not as a single measurement for high stakes outcomes.

    Cassellius is on the right track to draw us back from the brink that the current NCLB has brought us to - labeling our entire public education system a failure.

    Clearly, our failure with students of color points to a fundamental flaw in our design and delivery of K12 education. The article doesn’t mention that our vaunted ACT and NAEP test results actually validates the useful aspect of NCLB; its ability to point out that we do indeed have a racism issue and excellence for all issue in Minnesota.

    The way to address that however doesn’t lie in the NCLB accountability system of only using single measurements and of sucking funds out of these school communities. It rests on complimenting standardized summative tests with formative testing that drives better instruction, on elevating other academic disciplines as desired outcomes for our students, on expanding those desired outcomes to include the so-called “soft” skills of critical thinking, collaborative problem solving, communicating in a diverse world, civic responsibility and community building, and developing ethical behavior. And it rests on having our schools becoming skilled on multi-racial, multi-cultural realities capable of being relevant to student of color and of confronting racism.

    And so, instead of doing the simplistic thing of walking away from all of NCLB, Cassellius is doing the hard work of helping to transform it to what it should be: a true tool for the people on behalf of all students. Legislators from both parties should work with her to make that happen.
    Carlos Mariani