ST. PAUL - Republican leaders in the Minnesota House want U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos to reject the state's new plan for holding schools accountable.
Rep. Sondra Erickson, R-Princeton, and Rep. Jenifer Loon, R-Eden Prairie, wrote to DeVos and state Education Commissioner Brenda Cassellius on Oct. 18 saying Minnesota's plan "lacks transparency and clarity" and will not do enough for underperforming teachers and schools.
All states were required to draft new plans to comply with the 2015 Every Student Succeeds Act, or ESSA. Minnesota submitted its plan Sept. 18.
Erickson and Loon, who chair the House education policy and finance committees, added that the plan would not do enough to close the academic achievement gap between students of color and their peers.
"We believe Minnesota needs a (plan) that is truly innovative and addresses these concerns," their letter said. It asks DeVos to send Minnesota's plan back to state education leaders for improvements.
Cassellius responded in an Oct. 19 letter to Erickson and Loon that their concerns were surprising given the 20 months the Department of Education worked with stakeholders to develop the plan. She added that state education officials reviewed hundreds of comments about their proposal and updated it before it was submitted to Washington.
"I am confident they will find it to be not only compliant with federal statutory requirements, but more importantly, that (it) is focused on achieving equitable outcomes for students across our state and providing strategic support to the educators and schools that serve them," Cassellius wrote.
A key concern expressed by Erickson and Loon is that the state Education Department was circumventing the Legislature and developing a new measure to replace the Minnesota Comprehensive Assessments, or MCAs. Students take the MCAs in elementary, middle and high school to measure their proficiency in math, reading and science.
Cassellius responded that there is no plan to scrap the MCAs and the tests will continue to be used as part of the new school accountability system. ESSA, which replaced the No Child Left Behind law, does give states more flexibility over how schools are graded and held accountable, but annual achievement tests are still required.
Some of Erickson and Loon's other concerns were also brought up by education advocates in the public comment period before the plan was submitted in September. The biggest criticism surrounds the "funnel system" that will be used to identify the schools that are struggling the most.
Under the plan, schools will be graded on proficiency, academic growth, graduation rates, progress with students learning English, and overall school quality. That information will be used to identify schools that need intervention from the state's Centers of Excellence, which are designed to help struggling schools.
Critics: overall grade needed
But critics say the "funnel system" is subjective and risks missing low-performing schools. They want all schools to receive an overall grade or ranking.
Cassellius has pushed back on this critique, saying that the new plan is a clearer measure of school performance. She has noted that more schools will be identified for intervention than are currently receiving help.
Finally, questions remain about how Minnesota will report the results of its new accountability measures to parents. The ESSA plan was not required to detail how results will be reported to the public, and state leaders have promised to work with stakeholders when they develop a new system.
Critics worry that the new method of reporting results will be confusing for the public. They've pushed the department to develop a report card that will plainly explain school performance.
The U.S. Department of Education has 120 days from the Sept. 18 submission to review Minnesota's plan before deciding whether to accept it. The federal department has already found some plans to not be ambitious enough and called for their revision.
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