Monthly Archives: December 2017

For-Profit McNally Smith College Suddenly Shuts Down: A Student’s View

December 22, 2017

“If we mean anything more than our tuition to you, show us.”

This is Ana Hymson’s message for McNally Smith college officials. Hymson is, or was, one semester away from completing a bachelor’s degree in Music Production at McNally Smith. Just last week, the for-profit school announced it was shutting down, immediately. Staff and students were left scrambling for food (the cafeteria was suddenly closed), shelter (rumors were circulating that students will be locked out of dorms on Christmas Eve) and a paycheck (employees will not be paid this month for work already completed).

This is not a good holiday story, but it does reveal a lot about what it means to be “college and career ready” in today’s world. Ambitious kids, raised to believe that college degrees are their only way up and out, are increasingly being saddled with debt. Or worse–meaningless degrees. This is a problem of economics, marketing and false promises. (Other colleges have quickly stepped up to try to help McNally Smith students find a place to go, although they cannot, reportedly, promise that credits will transfer.)

For-profit colleges are dangerous, a fact McNally Smith’s president Harry Chalmiers acknowledged in a 2011 Op-Ed. McNally Smith was trying to become a nonprofit but couldn’t secure the funding to do so. The school was being dragged down by its students’ financial aid needs. Was it ethical to keep operating this fall? How will the founders of the school and its investors make out amidst the end-of-semester collapse of McNally Smith?

McNally Smith in more hopeful times

What happens to students burdened with debt for college credits they can’t put towards a degree? (A topic covered well in this brief podcast: What the 2016 Election Revealed About the Limits of “College for All.”)

The sudden closure of McNally Smith College of Music may leave students with few options for completing a degree because of the school’s weak accreditation.

Unlike public colleges and universities, which are regionally accredited, the St. Paul for-profit music school is nationally accredited. Transfer students historically have had little luck getting their new colleges to award credit for McNally Smith coursework.

–St. Paul Pioneer Press, “McNally Smith students might be stuck with credits that don’t transfer.” December 15, 2017

Ana Hymson is not sure what she will do next. She says she is an “outlier,” because she can’t drive and has relied on living just steps away from McNally Smith. She credits the school’s faculty and staff with “doing a great job” of helping students like her find ways to finish their degrees or otherwise move forward. So far, she says, she has not received a response to her email, which was addressed to the school’s founders, Jack McNally and Doug Smith.

Here is the text of her email:


I am sure you have dozens of emails like this one in your inbox right now, but I am here to add another, regardless, in hopes that you will gain more insight into what exactly your decision has done.

I moved to Minnesota from Florida in 2015, fresh out of high school, to pursue an education at McNally Smith. I double majored in Music Production (Bachelor’s program, with a minor in Music Business) and Live Sound. I packed 7 semesters, almost 4 years of work (if not more, considering my enrollment in more than one program), into the past 2 years. I also held 2 student worker positions at the school, as a receptionist and as part of the live sound department.

I was one semester away from graduating with both degrees when I received the news on that the school was closing.

As of writing this, I am completely unsure if I will ever be able to finish my degrees anywhere, let alone at an institution that would not force me to uproot the entire life I have built here. My life has been turned on its head by one email. I have medical bills, rent, health insurance, and a long, long list of other things to pay for, and an even longer list of uncertainties to sort through in order to determine the course of the rest of my life. Yet still, I am in a better situation than many of my peers. None of us were given the courtesy of time to plan for this, the assurance that anyone thought about our futures before this decision was made, or the immediate provision of resources that would make this announcement anything more than a very expensive slap in the face.

The other student workers, the faculty, and the staff were tricked into working our jobs for the past 2 weeks for free. There is no other way in which that can or should be phrased. Some of us believe that we may actually receive compensation down the line, but more of us do not. Still, faculty, staff, and student workers have been on campus, taking and administering final exams, completing projects, making music.

More importantly, though, we have spent the past days sharing our resources, offering up our open couches to the students who will be homeless by the end of next week, bringing food and packing supplies to the residence hall students who relied on meal plans from a cafe that can no longer operate to eat their next meals, attempting to salvage some of our academic resources that we were assured lifelong access to before they are shut down for good. We are scrambling to build a structure that should have been built for us.

And we have not heard a word from either of you. The fact that Harry (Chalmiers) was made to be the mouthpiece for this has subjected him to judgement he does not deserve, considering everything he has done for us and how often he has shown us that he cares about us all.

The fact that I am unsure whether I will ever get a response to this email, or whether it will even be read in the first place, is upsetting. But if I am being heard, I want to know what you plan to do to help the students, staff, and faculty who have proudly worn your names on our shirts, and who have trusted you to do right by us. We all deserved to get this news earlier, but we have to settle for the answers and guidance we can get now, and we are hoping that they will come soon, even though they will come to us through hours upon hours of unpaid work done by our friends. If we mean anything more than our tuition to you, show us.

Ana Hymson

Best wishes to all McNally Smith students and staff as they navigate this sudden loss. Here’s hoping that a thorough investigation of the school’s demise will be done quickly.

Like my work? Consider supporting it through a much appreciated donation. And thanks to those of you who already have!


Opting Out of Standardized Tests? It’s Still Legal in Minnesota

December 14, 2017

The Harvard Graduate School of Education recently posted an eye-opening interview with Professor Daniel Koretz, author of The Testing Charade: Pretending to Make Schools Better. His main point: “excessive high-stakes testing undermines the goals of instruction and meaningful learning.”

From Koretz’s point of view, today’s K-12 education system has become overrun by a “naive” devotion to standardized testing. He points out the ripple effects of this devotion, such as the impulse to “game” the system and double down on “boring test prep” in order to toe the testing line. Koretz’s insights will ring familiar to many who have been sounding this same alarm for years.

Koretz also discussed what parents or teachers can do when they realize—as many have—that “testing often degrades instruction rather than improving it.” He advised a “ground level” approach to change by recommending that concerned parents approach their child’s classroom teacher or administrator to ask what “wiggle room” the school may have for getting around onerous federal, state or local testing policies. But nowhere in the interview does Koretz mention that parents can opt their children out of any and all standardized testing, as well as test prep.

Photo: US News and World Report

This may be because, as states get ready to implement the new federal education policy known as the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), opt outs are again becoming a contentious and federally frowned upon issue—even though the ESSA was supposed to return policy making decisions to local departments of education. (The ESSA required every state to submit an accountability plan; those plans are now in the process of being either approved or denied by the federal education department.) 

Instead, the ESSA brings more pressure on parents, students, teachers and state legislators to bend to high-stakes standardized testing—despite the cost. Minnesota offers a clear example of this. As the 2017-2018 school year got underway, many teachers and parents were surprised to discover a newly revised “Parent Refusal” form provided by the Minnesota Department of Education. This form is intended to guide opt outs across the state, which have risen dramatically in some districts, including Minneapolis.

The initial pages provide boilerplate information for parents about federally required testing and its ties to Minnesota’s notoriously rigorous and independent academic standards. (Minnesota is only one of a handful of states, for example, that require all high school students to take Algebra 2 in order to graduate.) But on the last page of the form, a paragraph all in bold type pulls out every scare tactic in the book:

“I understand that by signing this form, my student will receive a score of ‘not proficient’ and waives the opportunity to receive a college-ready score that could save him/her time and money by not having to take remedial, non-credit courses at a Minnesota State college or university.”

Any parents still resisting are then served a final dose of guilt. Those who choose to opt out, the form warns, may deprive not only themselves but their whole school district of “valuable information” that could cause a potential drag on any local or state attempts to “equitably distribute resources.”

According to a Minnesota Department of Education employee, who was not authorized to speak publicly about this, the form was updated in 2017 for two main reasons. First, during the 2017 state legislative session, lawmakers on the Education Policy Committee passed a law requiring the department to clearly spell out the “consequences” of opting out of testing. Second, the form was amended in order to encourage more compliance with the ESSA law. The ESSA, like its much-derided predecessor, the No Child Left Behind law, requires that states test “at least 95 percent of all eligible students.”

In late 2015, the federal government, in promoting the ESSA, sent a letter to states urging them to “sanction” local schools or education departments that fall below this 95 percent threshold. To force compliance with standardized testing (and test prep, as Koretz points out), federal officials recommended that states threaten to withhold funding, for example, or label students who opt out as “non-proficient,” as the Minnesota form promises to do.

Labeling students as non-proficient has not gone over well with the public, according to the Minnesota department of education employee I spoke with. “People have expressed concern” over the wording on the Parent Refusal Form, the staffer admitted. The employee clearly conceded, however, that—no matter the implied consequences—parents and students still have the right to opt out of the testing.

What might be hardest to opt out of, though, is the nation’s long-standing insistence on using standardized test scores as a gatekeeper to higher education. In an October letter to the Minneapolis Star Tribune, University of Minnesota library employee Robert Katz wrote that, last year, 670 African-American students applied to the university’s highly regarded business school, but that “the U rejected 94 percent of them.” Why were so many African-Americans rejected? Katz argues that it is due in large part to the “administration’s use of standardized test scores.” The university, he says, has a new policy that requires incoming freshman to have an ACT score of 28—a score he says is “achieved by only 10 percent of test-takers nationwide.”

Black students tend to score lower on the ACT than their white and Asian-American peers, Katz writes, but not because they are less intelligent or capable. The ACT is a “flawed test,” he claims, and does not accurately reflect merit, intelligence, or a student’s likely college GPA. Using the university’s own data, Katz points out that students who come in with a 28 on the ACT tend to achieve first-year GPAs in the same range (B+ to A-) as those who come in with lower ACT scores.

The University of Minnesota’s new call for higher ACT scores means “African-American students are being turned away at a higher rate than 10 years ago,” Katz concludes. Rather than creating steps toward more equitable forms of assessment, federal education policy encourages states like Minnesota to punish those in K-12 and higher education who might want to resist the dominance of high-stakes standardized testing.  


A parent who read this blog post on Facebook says that she had previously reached out to the Minnesota Department of Education, complaining about the “not proficient” language on the state’s Parent Refusal Form. Here is the response she received from an unidentified staffer:

The woman at MDE who replied to me via e-mail said this, “For a student who does not participate, they will receive an Individual Student Report that says, ‘NA’ for Not Attempted. For accountability purposes, students who do not participate are included in a district’s total testing population, and since they did not participate, they cannot be included in the count of students who demonstrated proficiency on the assessment.” She also told me the form had been updated on approximately November 27. Here is the new language on the form, “I understand that by signing this form, my student will be counted as “not proficient” for the purpose of school and district accountability…”

This seems to indicate that individual students will no longer be labeled “not proficient” by the state, but that anyone who opts out of the Minnesota Comprehensive Assessments will still be lumped into that category. Some enterprising lawyer should look into whether or not it is legal to label students who do not take a test–which is their right–as “not proficient.”

*This post originally appeared on The Progressive magazine’s Public School Shakedown site.

Like my work? Consider supporting it through a much appreciated donation. And thanks to those of you who already have!