A better way to assess students


“No Child Left Behind” is deeply flawed. One of its most troubling aspects is the rigid, unreasonable way it determines student performance.

A group of Minnesota educators and legislators has come up with a workaround for the problem. Their proposal would track student growth, giving parents a more thorough picture of school performance, rather than using NCLB’s draconian system of tallying test results and punishing schools.

“Our goal was to develop a meaningful and fair way to assess what is going on in schools,” said Rep. Carlos Mariani, a member of the working group and Chair of the House E-12 Education Committee. “This is a better diagnostic than NCLB.”

The proposed assessment would not replace NCLB but augment it. NCLB test results are used to punish schools when not enough students meet standards. The standards rise each year — 100 percent of students are expected to meet standards by 2014. Schools are judged not only by how well their students perform on the test, but also how well poor students, special education students, students who are learning to speak English, and white, Hispanic and African American students perform. Not only can schools be punished if any of these groups don’t pass the test, they can be punished if not enough students show up to take the test.

“NCLB is purely punitive,” Mariani said.

To work around these problems, the group proposes using NCLB test results to determine if student ability is growing.

A student’s education level is determined by subtracting their 2006 reading and math test scores from their 2007 test scores. Put together, a state average emerges based on prior achievement, not arbitrary federal standards.

Using this system, parents can see how their school stacks up against the state average. Schools that dramatically surpass the average are called “Beat the Odds” schools. Other schools can look to these schools for best practices. “The assessment then becomes a diagnostic tool,” Mariani said.

The group offers this example: Though only 43 percent of students in one school meet the state average, 60 percent of African American students surpass the average. This makes the school a “Beat the Odds” school for African American education practices.

Mariani said the group’s model has a political past. A report card developed several years ago to show school progress was married to NCLB by Gov. Tim Pawlenty. He said the report cards now ape NCLB results and are no longer effective.

This work group “set out on a different path,” Mariani said. “We wanted to do what the feds want us to do [for NCLB], but we also wanted to find a parallel way to tell the public how their schools measure up.”

The state’s NCLB test – the MCAII – would be used for the group’s assessment. “We can use the test to see how students do against the big benchmark like NCLB as well as to see how kids are moving. It’s the best of two worlds,” Mariani said.

The Minnesota Department of Education is filing a waiver to try a similar project. The federal Education Department should reply by August.

Although Mariani suspects the MDE waiver request is the result of the working group’s actions, “the point is that now we have everyone moving in the same direction – the legislature, the education department and the education community.”

The assessment also looks toward the future. If NCLB is not reauthorized, Minnesotans will have this assessment available to measure school performance.

In the meantime, the working group will ask the legislature to resurrect the report card using their assessment to track growth. The group believes this will give parents a better idea of how Minnesota schools are performing.

The working group plans on meeting today.