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State Considers Takeover of "Lagging Schools"
By Tim Pugmire
December 20, 2000
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State education officials say 56 Minnesota elementary schools are performing below expectations on state tests and need to make improvements. The list is based on third- and fifth-grade test scores and fulfills an accountability requirement for a federal program that helps disadvantaged children. Education Commissioner Christine Jax calls the list a "valuable tool," but some school leaders say the list does more harm than good.

Minneapolis School Supt. Carol Johnson says one test should not be used to judge a school.
THE 1994 REAUTHORIZATION of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act required all states to have a system in place by this year to assess the annual progress of schools getting federal Title I money. Schools must show adequate yearly growth by using high academic standards to keep the money coming. In Minnesota, 900 schools participate in Title I.

Christine Jax, commissioner of the Department of Children, Families and Learning, says the list is based on how schools scored on the Minnesota Comprehensive Assessments, the reading and math tests given in third and fifth grades.

"These are schools whose average scores on the MCAs is below 1420," Jax said. "We think that's cause for concern and cause for some intervention, some resources help, some technical assistance help and that's what we're going to do."

Jax says special "assessment teams" will be formed to analyze each of the 56 underperforming schools. The teams will help school administrators write a plan for improving test scores. The schools are also eligible for additional federal funds to help make changes. Jax says she wants to eventually apply this concept to all Minnesota schools. Jax says the list is the foundation on which she wants to build a statewide school-accountability system, which could ultimately include a state takeover of failing schools.

"If after three years, five years, a school is still struggling, then I think we'd have to give some serious consideration to reconstitution," she said.

Title I is the nation's largest federal education program, providing remedial services to poor and disadvantaged children. Not surprisingly, most of the schools on Minnesota's list are in Minneapolis and Saint Paul.

Parent Linda Henn has daughters in second grade and fifth grade at Bancroft Elementary, one of 22 Minneapolis schools listed. Henn says her children have made excellent academic progress, and she's concerned about the list sending the wrong message about the school.

Listen to Education Commissioner Christine Jax during an appearance on December 20th on MPR's Midday broadcast.

See a list of the "lagging" schools.
"I think it's negative. I don't think it gives at all the global picture of what's happening at Bancroft. I think it's a wonderful school. I'm upset about it," she said.

School district officials share the concern. Superintendent Carol Johnson says Minneapolis has worked for five years developing its own tough district-wide accountability system, which uses 33 factors in analyzing a school's performance.

"In a large urban district like Minneapolis, and in school districts around the country, one test score should never be used to define the success or failure of a school's work," Johnson said.

A key legislative leader is also critical of the department's list. Representative Alice Seagren, chairwoman of the House K-12 Finance Committee, says the state needs to identify and help underperforming schools, but she calls the ranking pointless. Seagren says the list unfairly isolates third- and fifth-grade performance.

Seagren wants Minnesota to replicate a Texas accountability system that analyzes and compares the performances of schools with similar demographics. That means schools with high poverty levels and lots of non-English speaking students are only compared to schools with equal or greater challenges.

Commissioner Jax says she'll present her own proposal for a comprehensive accountability system, which lists all Minnesota public schools and their test scores, to the 2001 Legislature.

Tim Pugmire is Minnesota Public Radio's education reporter. Reach him via e-mail at