At St. Paul's Maxfield Elementary, low ranking masks real transformation

John Bjoraker teaches his third graders a reading lesson from the Mondo curriculum. (Photos by Alleen Brown)

Two conflicting stories are being told about Maxfield Elementary school in St. Paul.

Minnesota’s new system for determining which schools are struggling and which are succeeding paints a picture of a school in trouble. Maxfield has been labeled a “priority school,” the lowest ranking in Minnesota's Multiple Measurement Ranking (MMR). The MMR score, which is based on students’ test proficiency, growth, and achievement gap size, dropped from 30 percent in 2011 to 3 percent in 2012.

This article is part of a series, Testing: Who wins, who loses with high stakes, standardized testing in Minnesota schools

But administrators see something different. “That school is absolutely transformed, and anyone who interacts with that school will tell you that,” said St. Paul schools accountability chief Matt Mohs. “The test scores and the MMR score does not reflect that.”

It’s ironic, because Maxfield’s transformation was in many ways defined by a mantra that said test scores must be heeded.

So who’s in the wrong? Are Maxfield’s reforms the wrong ones? Is Maxfield not implementing them correctly? Or are the brand new, retooled scores missing something important?

Maxfield’s transformation

When veteran principal Nancy Stachel took over as Maxfield’s principal in 2010, what she saw was chaos. Seven principals had cycled through in 10 years, and staff turnover was also high. Stachel said community engagement was nil.

Maxfield is located in St. Paul’s Frogtown neighborhood, part of the historic Rondo community. Most of its kids are African American, and almost every student qualifies for free or reduced price lunch.

The school never fell under No Child Left Behind’s restructure requirement, but test scores had been low for years. More than two-thirds of students were failing to earn proficient scores on reading and math tests.

Mondo at Maxfield

Stachel’s first full year at Maxfield also coincided with the rollout of a controversial new district reading curriculum: Mondo. The curriculum represented a break from an era where teachers had much more flexibility in deciding how to present material.

Now, on any given day, all teachers in each grade level present the same Mondo reading lesson. At Maxfield, John Bjoraker starts his lessons by stating a learning objective and asking students to repeat it. For example, “We will understand the purpose of generating questions to better understand text.”

Bjoraker presents a brief lesson to the whole class, then students work on assignments matched to their skill level. Classroom volunteers float around the room to monitor progress, while the Bjoraker meets with small groups.

Bjoraker uses a school-wide data system to enter an x or a check next to the names of the students in his small group, depending on whether they mastered the day’s skill or not. He meets weekly with other fourth grade teachers to look at the data and decide together whether lesson plans need to be adjusted.

Recognizing that things were bad, the district applied for and won a School Improvement Grant for Maxfield. The grants were included in federal No Child Left Behind legislation, but the Obama administration increased their funding significantly with the 2009 stimulus package. Grantees are required to undergo significant efforts to improve the test scores of their struggling schools.

Stachel started the 2010-2011 school year with a hand-picked staff and a renewed dedication to family engagement and attention to data.

Stachel and her team implemented a Positive Behavior Interventions and Supports program, designed to prevent problem behaviors before they start.

They launched an after-school program.

Her arrival coincided with the launch of St. Paul’s Promise Neighborhood program, which aimed to provide “cradle to career” supports for every child in the 250-block area that surrounds Maxfield.

Teachers gained 17 additional days of professional development.

That was important, considering the school’s renewed focus on data. Now teachers record tons of data about students during daily classroom activities and through assessments like the MAP test. They meet regularly to discuss how the data should impact instruction.

Results

Maxfield’s test scores are still lower than the state and city averages, and they didn’t shoot up as rapidly last year as they did the year before. Still, the MMR score masks progress at the school.

What the MMR score leaves out:

Three years of almost zero teacher turnover.

A 66 percent drop in the number of kids sent to the office for behavior.

Forty-three percent of families showing up to monthly parent engagement nights.

MCA test scores that are finally starting to inch up.

A school culture that works hard to respond to test data.

The one-digit MMR number fails to describe the limitations of a system still reliant on a test given once a year.

The score also ignores what hasn’t changed at Maxfield: high rates of poverty and all that comes with it, including high mobility, frequent absences and stressed-out kids.

Not giving up on accountability

Despite her school’s low score, Stachel isn’t ready to give up on the new measure, and she’s not giving up on test-based school accountability systems.

Nancy Stachel, principal of Maxfield Elementary School in St. Paul


“What No Child Left Behind did, for all of its evil, was force us to look at things we didn’t want to look at,” she said, referring to the gaps in test scores and graduation rates between low-income students of color and high-income white students.

“Don’t hold me accountable for what my kids come to the table with; hold me accountable for what they leave the table with,” she said. Stachel hopes that that’s what the new measure will eventually do. “Hang on. Let it play itself out.”

This article is part of a series on testing in Minnesota schools. The articles in the series, published during the week of December 10, 2012, are:

When tests tell teachers nothing: Special needs not met by standardized tests

At St. Paul's Maxfield Elementary, low ranking masks real transformation

Winner or loser? Test scores for Minneapolis's Kenny elementary school say both at the same time

Wonk time: An insider's critique of new Minnesota school rating system

St. Paul teacher: Too much testing hurts kids who need help most

One teacher's story: Testing makes teaching a nightmare

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Alleen Brown's picture
Alleen Brown

Alleen Brown (alleenbrown [at] tcdailyplanet [dot] net or Twitter @AlleenBrown) is a freelance writer from Minneapolis.