MinnPost: Parents of color want a clearer way to assess schools in Minnesota

As parents clashed with school officials and the state Education Department over a school accountability proposal in the Senate Education Committee, Sen. Patricia Torres Ray, DFL-Minneapolis, urged school leaders and lawmakers to address the elephant in the room during a session about school diversity, achievement gaps, and other disparities: Families of color don’t trust the state education system.

“I think we’re adopting very rigid attitudes as to how things need to be measured, how we need to preserve a system of education that is actually not working for a very large number of students,” Torres Ray told MinnPost. “We just need to get out of that box and start being more creative.”

Torres Ray raised concerns during a hearing on Senate File 299, a bill that would require the Minnesota Department of Education (MDE) to establish a five-star rating system for schools. She told MinnPost that several other education policy discussions at the Capitol this session, including on teacher licensure and teacher diversity, follow a similar pattern to the one she saw at the hearing March 13.

“The core question that parents of color, children of color, activists, myself and others are asking is are these goals of inclusivity – attention to these measures that incorporate cultural competency, race, ethnic background – are these measures important enough in education?” she said. “It is precisely because we have these challenges in regard to the student population that we have that we need to be more creative in finding tools that measure growth and are understandable.”

‘See the room and get the message’

SF 299 has history in the Senate committee. A previous version outlined how to calculate the single score based on state testing results. This year’s bill removes all specifics, leaving it up to MDE to determine which data points to use and how to weight them in coming up with a single state-sponsored rating of each school.

“We got rid of all the other controversial items,” Sen. Roger Chamberlain, R-Lino Lakes, chief author of the bill, said. “The citizens will greatly appreciate it.”

But it remained contentious. On the day of its hearing, which coincided with a hearing on SF 1557 (a bill that would tweak the teacher licensure system), teachers, parents, and other school advocates packed the audience. Numerous outbursts, whether of applause or outrage, led to the removal of one member of the audience.

State Sen. Roger Chamberlain, author of the bill, and Daniel Sellers, executive director of Ed Allies, speaking to the Senate Education Committee – MinnPost photo by Taryn Phaneuf

Advocates for the school ratings bill, many of them people of color, told senators the state’s system of collecting and sharing data on school performance is unclear and confusing. They believe a rating system would give them “a starting point” when deciding where to send their children and how to advocate for them, since data continues to show they perform worse than their white classmates. Proponents asked senators to weigh their perspectives carefully, saying they previously felt dismissed by the committee.

“There’s no one sitting in this room who could right now go on the Minnesota Department of Education website and easily find information. But we’re all aware that the information is out there. So how do we make it simple?” said Rashad Turner of Minnesota Comeback, an education advocacy group. “We know it’s not the end-all, be-all but it is a starting point. As we change the system to work for all families, not just some, it starts with information.”

Opponents’ concerns

Opponents of the bill said it would be impossible to boil down complex schools data into a single rating, and doing so would hurt schools struggling to improve student outcomes in schools serving diverse populations with unique needs, such as those with high rates of students learning English.

Kim Lewis of Minnesota School Boards Association told committee members a star rating system would over-rely on test scores – a move backwards after a new school accountability system, called North Star, was put in place. The program still measures achievement using test scores but also includes broader data points. “This new era of school accountability was an opportunity to leave the punitive … system behind,” she said.

Torres Ray told MinnPost she thinks the state needs to make school data more accessible and understandable to parents. She thinks SF 299 is incomplete, but it would be valuable to develop a system that digs into schools’ ability to teach populations of students with challenging circumstances. 

“But we’ve been putting it in our heads that it’s so bad to expose the limitations and struggles of schools,” she said. “We prefer simply not to have a rating system.”

During the committee, she expressed disappointment with testimony from school leaders, as well as an assistant commissioner from the Minnesota Department of Education, who opposed this kind of rating system. They said it was rejected by a majority of stakeholders who attended public meetings about the new North Star system.

“Be creative and think about how you respond to these parents. I believe there was support … to figure out how to make our system accountable to predominantly children of color and indigenous children. The time has come and we must do that,” she said. “Saying no to this is just not helpful. Please see the room. See the room and get the message.”

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