Beyond the stars

What the state’s report cards really say about Southwest schools

Southwest schools brought home their state No Child Left Behind (NCLB) report cards late last month; Whittier, Ramsey and Bryn Mawr were beaming, while Barton, Lake Harriet, Burroughs and Windom looked nervously at their shoes.

At an Aug. 26 news conference at the Minnesota State Fair, state Education Commissioner Alice Seagren released the names of 472 Minnesota schools that did not make adequate yearly progress under federal No Child standards. That number tripled over last year, in part because it included test scores of high schools and middle schools for the first time.

In the Southwest area, Barton, Burroughs, Lake Harriet Upper and Windom made the list, as did Anthony and Anwatin middle schools and South, Southwest and Washburn high schools.

Two schools left the list: Ramsey, 1 W. 49th St. and Bryn Mawr, 252 Upton Ave. S. A third, Whittier, 2620 Grand Ave. S., made adequate yearly progress during 2003-04, but must repeat the feat this year to leave the list.

However, before parents stampede with their children out of their current schools in search of somewhere better, they should understand the star system’s bias.

The stars are based on the Minnesota Comprehensive Assessment standardized tests. A passing score is 1420, and by 2012, according to the No Child Left Behind Act, all students must meet it.

Elementary schools are rated on 3rd- and 5th-grade tests; middle schools are rated on 7th-grade tests; and high schools on 10th-grade reading and 11th-grade math tests.

Stars are heavily weighted toward all nine student groupings (overall student body, Asians, blacks, Hispanics, whites, American Indians, free- and reduced-priced lunch recipients (students in poverty), special education and limited English proficiency — making "adequate yearly progress." That’s defined as a rising percentage of students in each group scoring at least 1420.

Each group must have at least 20 kids to be rated (or 40 in the case of special ed).

If even one group makes inadequate progress on one test, a school can get at most two of five stars — even if the "failing" group is, say, only 5 percent of a student body, and the school otherwise racks up outstanding performance.

That’s why they call it No Child Left Behind.

Lake Harriet Upper, a 3rd- to 8th-grade school at 4912 Vincent Ave. S., offers the two scenarios all in one building.

The school received five stars for math — the only top ranking in Southwest — but only two in reading.

Does that mean Lake Harriet students are math geniuses and reading dullards? No.

Last April, the standardized basic skills test for Lake Harriet 8th graders in reading was 95 out of 100. Only 11 schools in the state outperformed Lake Harriet, and it was number one in the city.

However, one subgroup — students in poverty — did not hit the target passing goal in reading; 56 percent passed instead of the target 63 percent. That meant the whole school was limited to two stars in reading, even though tested kids in poverty make up 31 of Lake Harriet’s 530 students.

In math, Lake Harriet earned the full five stars because:

– All student groups made adequate progress (three stars)

– More than 30 percent of students scored in the test’s top level (a fourth star) and — a bit paradoxically —

– Lake Harriet’s kids in poverty earned outstanding math scores compared to other state schools with similar poverty percentages.

Bottom line: the star system is great at flagging schools where some student groups did not hit passing targets, but probably won’t tell you much about how your kid — or even the typical kid — is doing.

Other schools

The tests are a sore subject with Minneapolis school leaders.

In past years, district officials have complained about No Child’s flaws — one of the biggest is that the test does not measure progress that individual students make. Instead, it compares how, for example, this year’s Hispanic group compared to last year’s Hispanic group. If this year’s group, includes newer immigrants who have spent less time in city schools, scores could drop even though the school isn’t really at fault.

Minneapolis issues its own school report cards in the spring, using measures that chart individual student progress.

This year, under new Supt. Thandiwe Peebles, district leadership is trying to downplay the state report cards by not talking about them. District spokespeople referred reporters to individual principals or to state education officials.

At Burroughs, 1501 W. 50th, which received two of five stars in reading and math, principal Tim Cadotte said, "I am angry at being on the list. The general public is going to see Burroughs is on the list and think it’s a failing school and it is not."

Burroughs’ Hispanic, limited-English-speaking and poverty groups did not make adequate yearly progress. Latino students are taught in Spanish through 2nd grade, an immersion curriculum that works well for immigrant children at Burroughs, Cadotte said.

Unfortunately, kids take the test in 3rd grade, when students are just starting to learn the English language. Cadotte said if the MCA were offered in Spanish, his Latino students would pass.

After looking at Burroughs’ test results, state Education Department spokesman Bill Walsh termed Cadotte’s point "valid."

Walsh noted that in 3rd grade, 75 percent of Burroughs’ kids passed the test, but by 5th grade, 83 percent did. That indirectly validates Cadotte’s contention that the longer kids are at Burroughs, the better they read.

However, Walsh added, Burroughs can offer the 3rd-grade test in Spanish, something school leaders should consider when giving the test this school year.

At Windom — Southwest’s only one-star school, in reading — Principal Jean Neuman similarly scorned the system.

"As a whole, the No Child Left Behind act is punitive, punishing a school for small subgroups of children who might not be progressing at the same rate [as the majority]," Neuman said.

Windom’s single star smothers the school’s actual gains.

For example, last year, three subgroups failed to make adequate yearly progress; this year, only one group (blacks) did.

And passing rates among several at-risk groups actually went up from the previous year:

– Overall student body, 42 passing to 58 percent passing

– Hispanics, 32 passing to 41 percent passing

– Blacks, 47 percent passing to 49 percent passing

– Limited-English learners, 32 percent passing to 47 percent passing

– Kids in poverty, 34 percent passing to 51 percent passing.

"Nobody can argue that the ratings aren’t confusing," Walsh said. "It’s new, but we are only in the second year of this. As we get into year two and more and more people understand [report-card scoring], it will become more apparent to everybody."

Within the confusing world, there was still good news for some Southwest schools.

Whittier improved from one to three stars on the state’s five-star system, but because it had not made adequate yearly progress for consecutive years, it won’t come off the list unless it produces similar results next year.

That would be perfect timing, since Whittier becomes a districtwide magnet school in 2005-06, when it will add the city’s first elementary-level International Baccalaureate curriculum.

Bryn Mawr Elementary was one of two Southwest schools that got off the list. Last year, they were cited because their students in poverty (who make up 75 percent of the student body) and black students did not make adequate yearly progress on the reading test.

Bryn Mawr principal Nanette Yurecko credited a University of Minnesota grant for the extra staff development that made a difference.

Her staff attended a summer institute and also went on training weekends during the school year. They also met with research-based study groups every week after school, focused on scientifically based reading research practices. The school’s curriculum requires 120 minutes of reading everyday, which Yurecko said staff considers sacred.

"We need to have an accountability system like No Child Left Behind within our profession to help us inform our instruction — but at the same time, we need to keep it all in perspective," Yurecko said. "The MCA test only measures certain grades for one year, and the next year they measure a different group of kids."

Ironically, Whittier, Lyndale and Bryn Mawr, schools with high concentrations of poverty all earned three stars in both math and reading, while schools with wealthier student bodies, such as Burroughs, Barton and Lake Harriet, did not.

"Poverty is certainly one of our barriers to achievement, and nobody would dispute that," Yurecko said. "At the same time, we cannot allow it to be an excuse for the underperformance of kids."

Lyndale Community School, 312 W. 34th St., achieved three stars in both reading and math, which is notable since over 90 percent of its student are in poverty. Lyndale earned the same star rating last year.

Kenny and Armatage elementary schools, which district officials have talked of merging, each received fourth stars in reading because of a bonus factor on top of all student groups making adequate yearly progress.

At Armatage, 2501 W. 56th St., kids in poverty achieved outstanding reading performance compared to other schools with similarly sized populations in poverty. At Kenny, at least 30 percent of all students scored at the top reading test level.