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

Kenny Principal Bill Gibbs with posters showing Kenny test scores (Photo by Alleen Brown)

Kenny elementary school principal, Bill Gibbs, is pleased but puzzled.

Under Minnesota’s new  Multiple Measures Ranking system, which rates how effective schools are at coaxing high test scores out of their students, Kenny holds two conflicting labels. It’s both a struggling “focus” school and an excelling “celebration eligible” school.

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

“[I’m] still confused,” Gibbs said. “I get a letter telling me that [the Minnesota Department of Education] has said that Kenny is able to be a celebration school, but I don’t lose my focus label.”

Across the Twin Cities, principals are scratching their heads as schools enter their first full year under Minnesota’s complicated new Multiple Measures Ranking system. The state education department launched the system after Minnesota won a waiver freeing it from some of the most onerous requirements of federal No Child Left Behind.

For school leaders like Gibbs, the new system is confusing. Most teachers interviewed hardly knew what it was.

The new ranking system provides a break for schools headed towards closure or restructuring under No Child Left Behind mandates.

In most buildings, though, it’s no game changer. In Minnesota, the pressure on schools to increase test scores is still high.

Gibbs agrees that Kenny should be celebrated for the dramatic changes it’s undergone. But change didn’t happen in a year, and the new ranking system won’t change a school culture that revolves around data and test scores.

Both “focus” and “celebration eligible?”

Kenny learned in May that it was among the 10 percent of Minnesota schools that contributed most to the state’s achievement gap, based on its spring 2011 test scores. Kenny was labeled a “focus school.”

The school’s white students were  scoring high on tests, but students of color, especially African American students, were not, and they were not showing fast enough growth to make up the difference.

Kenny is located in a Southwest Minneapolis neighborhood Gibbs described as middle class with pockets of poverty. Approximately 40 percent of students qualify for free or reduced price lunch. The school is 43 percent students of color and 57 percent white, with few ELL students and big parent involvement. Nearly 80 percent of parents can be counted on to show up with their kids to events like the annual fall festival.

In spring 2011, 28 percent of Kenny's black students scored proficient on state math tests, compared to 65 percent of Kenny's white students. In 2012 math scores rose significantly; 49 percent of the school's black students scored proficient, and 79 percent of white students did. Statewide, 33 percent of black students scored proficient in math.

The high growth in black students' test scores meant that three months after Kenny was labeled a "focus" school, it became “celebration eligible.”

Since focus labels are only doled out every three years, Kenny now has two conflicting labels.

Details like that make the new system very difficult for any non-insider to understand, and raise questions about the usefulness of the labels.

Transformation through testing?

When Gibbs started as assistant principal five years ago, rumors were circulating that Kenny would close soon. The school was not making AYP, meaning its MCA test scores were low. Parents were pulling their kids out.

Now enrollment is up and so are scores.

Behind the change is a whole lot of data. Administrators, teachers and aides live by the data they get from everyday student assignments and from a long schedule of standardized tests.

The Minnesota Comprehensive Assessment or MCA is the big test, given every spring and used to determine whether Kenny should be labeled struggling (as it was based on its 2010-2011 scores) or a success (as it was last year). It’s also the least useful to teachers, who for years received results in the middle of summer.

Then there's the computer-based Measures of Academic Progress or MAP test, which students take two times a year. It’s an adaptive test, so the questions get harder when kids answer correctly and easier when their answers are wrong. The results come quickly and show specific areas where kids struggle. Since it’s given more than once, teachers can monitor kids’ progress throughout the year.

At Kenny, the Fontas and Pinnell test is given two times a year, or three times for struggling readers. It’s the most time-consuming for teachers, who have to spend 20 to 30 minutes listening to each student read a passage aloud and answer comprehension questions.

Curriculum Based Measurements (CBMs) are a cousin to Fontas and Pinnell. Students take CBMs another three times a year, and more often if they’re struggling readers. Students read aloud to teachers for one minute.

“They’re all district initiatives,” Gibbs said of the standardized tests. “We decided to use them, and I mean really use them.”

Really” using the tests

Kenny teacher Brent Mastel said administering the Fontas and Pinnell assessment can take up a month’s worth of reading instruction time in his fourth grade classroom.

“It’s been a very good thing, but it is a very demanding system that’s changed teaching dramatically,” Mastel said. “You’re trading instructional time with the hopes that the information you get and your own professional expertise will result in more focus and better instruction overall.”

He added, “If we’re going to do it, we have to make sure we use it.”

Currently, Kenny teachers have an hour and a half of “sacred” professional development time every Wednesday.

In a separate weekly meeting, Gibbs pores over data with revolving groups of teachers organized by grade level and specialty.

The data tells them which kids need extra attention in particular subjects, and it shows them the math topics that need to be re-taught to everyone. If one teacher’s data is better than the rest, that teacher shares strategies.

Mastel said teachers still lack the high-quality, individualized professional development they need to make the lost instruction time worthwhile. He said, “Things come at us so quickly that it often feels like we learn how to go through the motions with things, but are we doing the best quality that we can do?”

“I could retire and still have a full-time job going to professional development sessions,” he said. “I don’t think we need more professional development, we need better.”

Moving forward in accountability based education

Gibbs said the new accountability system hasn’t changed the school’s practices much at all.

“Our district didn’t give us any extra support or resources,” Gibbs said. “It’s really just knowing you could be monitored for what you’re saying you’re going to do.”

Gibbs isn’t mourning the fact that the waiver doesn’t do away with test-based accountability systems.

“Accountability is key because public schools don’t function without taxpayers dollars. They need to know that they’re getting something in return,” he said. “The accountability piece is good; they just have to adjust it, and make it reasonable.”

Said Gibbs, “Tests aren’t going to go away.”

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.