Tag Archives: Minnesota Department of Education

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.

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Minneapolis’s Segregated Charter Schools Score a Windfall

October 9, 2017

On September 28, the U.S. Department of Education announced that it would give a handful of states, including Minnesota, an “additional $253 million in grants to expand charter schools,” in order to spur on school choice–an education reform strategy long embraced by Democrats, Republicans and wealthy financiers. 


In the announcement, Education Secretary Betsy DeVos referenced Minnesota, where the nation’s first charter school was authorized in 1991. With this new influx of federal money, Minnesota’s burgeoning school choice market will receive a $23 million dollar shot in the arm. The bulk of this taxpayer-generated cash will go to the Minnesota Department of Education, while another $1 million will go directly to Minneapolis’s Hiawatha Academies charter school chain.

Such announcements are often accompanied by cheerful talk of innovation and choice. The new federal funding is all about “seeing how we can continue to work with states to help ensure more students can learn in an environment that works for them,” according to DeVos. But this new funding will also support Minnesota’s increasingly segregated public and charter school landscape, as well as an exodus of money and students from union-staffed districts. (Charter school teachers and staff are mostly non-unionized, in Minnesota and beyond.)

Segregated Schools Get a Boost 

Hiawatha Academies is a perfect example of this. The charter school chain serves a population of students that is almost exclusively Latino. Public education records show, for example, that ninety-three percent of HIawatha Academies’ Morris Park students are Latino. The neighborhood it sits in, however, is seventy-seven percent white

Overall, Hiawatha Academies’ test scoresprized by reformers as the measure of school success–have dropped significantly in recent years. 

Hiawatha Academies has several other schools in the southern half of Minneapolis and is slated to open a big, brand-new high school in 2018. This school, Hiawatha Collegiate High School, currently serves 105 students in a former Minneapolis public school site. Eighty-three percent of the students are Latino; again, this is an aberration when the neighborhood’s demographics are considered. Recently, Minneapolis’s Planning Commission approved Hiawatha’s plans to expand the high school, with a target enrollment of over 700 students.

This is less about innovation and more about grabbing market share from the Minneapolis Public Schools. Hiawatha Academiesexpansion  plan makes this clear: “Our goal is that by 2024, more than 2,000 scholars – 5 percent of all Minneapolis school children – will attend a Hiawatha Academies school.” The path to expansion has been paved through unnaturally segregated schools and loads of outside money–including extensive financial support from the WalMart fueled Walton Family Foundation–and now, an injection of $1 million from the federal Department of Education.

Juicy Incentive Packages Lure Funders

Hiawatha Academies’ new high school will also be funded by private investors (including several corporations) who will benefit from a New Market Tax Credit. This tax credit, started in the Clinton administration and intended to boost development in “underserved” areas, has provided a “gravy train to fat city” for charter school investors, as Forbes magazine writer Addison Wiggin put it in a 2013 article. Wiggin describes the charter school market as “booming,” thanks to investments from “bankers, hedge fund types and private equity investors” eager to cash in on the New Market Tax Credit.

In 2010, this tax credit was explored in-depth by journalist Juan Gonzalez. Writing for the New York Daily News, Gonzalez found that investing in new charter schools has become incredibly lucrative. Not only do investors stand to gain a tax credit worth up to 39 percent after seven years, thanks to the New Market program, but they can also earn interest on the money they’ve invested, since it is done in the form of a loan. Gonzalez noted that the New Market Tax Credit can also be tacked onto other “federal tax credits, like historic preservation or job creation….” Hiawatha’s new Collegiate High School will be located in a historic former bottling plant in Minneapolis’s Seward neighborhood.

All told, this adds up to a very juicy incentive package when it comes to the proliferation of charter schools in urban areas. Investors in HIawatha Academies’ new high school have put up $5 million in funding through the New Market Tax Credit program. In order to rake in enough per pupil funds to make this project sustainable over time, the school will need to rapidly grow its enrollment to the projected capacity of nearly 800 students. 

Push for Privatization

The corporate and government-sponsored expansion of charter schools is less about student success and more about pushing privatized, market forces onto public institutions. A recent Minneapolis Star Tribune article documented the drain charter schools are imposing on the city’s increasingly cash-strapped and underfunded public school district. In “Students in Flight,” reporters Beena Raghavendran and MaryJo Webster sized up the situation this way: “Minneapolis Public Schools is the biggest loser in Minnesota’s robust school-choice environment, surrendering more kids to charter schools and other public school options than any other district.”

Pitting privately managed, publicly (and privately) funded charter schools against public school districts creates a market of winners and losers–especially when the charter schools are allowed to serve niche populations. There is further evidence of this on the state education department’s website. There, readers will find a list of charter schools deemed “high quality  and worthy of replication. Included on this list are highly segregated schools like Twin Cities International Elementary School.

Publicly available data shows that this “international” school, located in Minneapolis, has a student population that is 100 percent Black/African-American (18 percent of Minneapolis’s overall population is identified as Black, according to recent census data). From the school’s website, it seems clear that it serves Minneapolis’s large Somali community, with only two percent of its students requiring special education services. That is far less than the special education rate of 15 percent within the Minneapolis Public Schools. (Special education remains an expensive, underfunded proposition for districts, like Minneapolis, that serve a bigger percentage of students with higher needs.)

School Choice Leads to Resegregation

Instead of remedying the historic and ongoing problem of racially and economically isolated neighborhoods and public schools, federal and local support for charter schools is exacerbating the situation. Research–like that of New York Times education reporter, Nikole Hannah-Jones, tells us that segregated schools often remain separate and unequal for students of color. In the Twin Cities, an increase in segregated schools has also meant white students are being educated in public and charter schools with abnormally high percentages of white, wealthier students. Nevertheless, several of these schools–including Twin Cities German Immersion and Nova Classical Academy–are lauded on the state department of education’s website for being “high quality” charter schools.

Meanwhile, the Minneapolis and St. Paul public schools are struggling to keep up–especially in a time when public funding for education has dwindled significantly in Minnesota. Some might call this disaster capitalism, with public entities being weakened over time, in order to create an opportunity to reconstruct the education landscape in favor of privatized, niche (segregated) charter schools that sometimes attract wealthy investors, but often fail to provide a better education for marginalized students.

In an op-ed response to the Star Tribune’s portrayal of Minneapolis as the “biggest loser” in the school choice market, University of Minnesota education professor Nicola Alexander offered a cautionary message. While expressing sympathy for parents and students who don’t want to be left “feeling stuck in schools that do not serve their needs,” Alexander pokes a hole in the idea that school choice schemes are somehow without consequence.

The proliferation of charter schools in urban areas provides an end run around “broader social factors, like poverty, that ailed many of these communities,” Alexander writes. Further, instead of tackling the whole, state and federal policy has fallen “firmly on the side of mechanisms that equated choice with empowerment and school systems with markets.” But, of course, she notes, “markets are not always fair.”

This is not a concept that has bothered Betsy DeVos, either in her home state of Michigan, where she pushed for accountability-free charter schools, or in her new role as federal education secretary. One of the Trump administration’s first action items for the Department of Education, under DeVos, was to cancel an Obama-era program designed to promote school integration. With this latest announcement of more funding for charter schools, states like Minnesota are being pushed further into a market-based, partially privatized education system.

A condensed version of this post was originally published on the Progressive magazine’s Public School Shakedown site.

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Stakeholders, Start Your Engines: ESSA is Coming

July 14, 2016

On Tuesday, July 12, local ed reform group, MinnCAN, hosted a “stakeholder learning and planning event,” in connection to the federal government’s revamped education policy–the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA). MinnCAN billed the session as a “chance to learn more about the possibilities under ESSA and hear about the priorities of local community leaders.” (I attended at the invitation of a friend.)

To host the event, MinnCAN presented a united reform front, partnering with Educators 4 ExcellenceStudents for Education Reform and Teach for America- Twin Cities-all national groups with admirable infrastructure and event-hosting budgets. This one–held inside the Minneapolis’s Sheraton Midtown hotel–included muffins and coffee, as well as a smattering of folks from the reform groups listed above, and also from the Minnesota Department of Education and various local political advocacy groups.

While there, I sat next to a friendly young man, who turned out to be a note-taking rep from MinnCAN’s parent company, 50CAN. Aside from a minor scuffle over VAM, or “Value-Added” teacher evaluations–which the 50CAN guy insisted were scientifically valid, and only “politically” unpopular, after I referred to VAM as “junk science“–things went smoothly. Here are some highlights:

Education What?

MinnCAN’s presentation was run by someone named Bill Porter, out of Portland, Oregon. Porter explained that he works for a group called “Education First,” and was brought to Minneapolis by the Chicago-based Joyce Foundation.

The Joyce Foundation has a market-based reform rap sheet a mile long, with a list of grantees that include such hat-in-hand (not!) groups as LEE (TFA’s policy offshoot), Minnesota Comeback (sitting on a cool $35 million) and, sadly, the Education Writers Association. Goodbye, Fourth Estate!

Education First has a very attractive, easy to navigate website with lots of handy info. The ESSA bill, which passed in 2015, and is a long overdue rewrite of the toxic, NCLB law, is more than 1,000 pages long. The only person I know who has read it, in its entirety, is Louisiana blogger, Mercedes Schneider. Thus, it would be easy to conclude that Education First is providing a handy service to citizens by condensing the War and Peace-like ESSA into digestible, PowerPoint bites.

But, Education First is an advocacy organization, with a funder-pleasing point of view to sell. Putting that aside, the emphasis of Porter’s presentation was subtle–and focused mainly on “opportunities” for states, the oft-cited need for “stakeholder input” and so on.


  • Education First, through Porter, clearly supports ESSA’s continued insistence (fought for by Democrats, no less) that all children, in grades 3-8, must be given yearly standardized tests. During his presentation, Porter reminded the audience that states are still supposed to test 95 percent of their students, and he advised Minnesotans to “help ensure students ‘opt-in'” and not out, of testing. Part of the argument, Porter said, is to make it clear that the tests are providing “really rich data, and people shouldn’t have the option to just say they don’t care.”
  • Punishment? When questioned, Porter agreed that there are no known consequences for districts where less than 95 percent of students get tested. (The opt out option lives on!) However, it seems clear that the testing lobby, run mostly by Pearson, has won a victory with ESSA, since districts will still need to sit kids in front of computer screens or bubble sheets in order to prove every one of them is “succeeding.” (Here’s a look at what’s different about testing, for now, under ESSA.) 
  • John King Alert! (This did not come up in Porter’s presentation, but is quite important). ESSA supposedly provides some relief from testing (by allowing states more flexibility with how to use test results, etc.), BUT, United States Secretary of Education, John King, is currently working–through the attempted passage of “regulations” that would go along with ESSA–to force states to comply with the one-off, “summative” test-and-punish system that epitomized NCLB. Example: The language in proposed Regulation 200.15 (find it here) is quite authoritarian, and tries hard to insist that ALL students must be tested, or else. King also wants to judge schools on an A-F scale, according, primarily, to test scores. Disagree? You have until August 1 to read the regulations and comment on them. 

New Money for Teacher “Academies” 

  • Porter’s presentation introduced but did not dwell on this golden ticket, nestled within ESSA. Two percent of a state’s federal money can now flow to start-up teacher training sites, to fill those talent pipelines everyone is so crazy for, Until now, most teachers have had to get certified at an institution affiliated with a university of some sort. Now, this “monopoly” may be on its way out, according to the “elitist” Brookings Institution:

A less-noticed new provision in the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) may be critical to unlocking business model innovation in teacher preparation.

  • Think of this as deregulation for the teacher licensure field (long a goal of the privatization-based reform movement). Under ESSA, states can divert federal, taxpayer money to “authorize new ‘teacher preparation academies,'” to be set up and run according to free market rules (or lack thereof). For example, according to the Brookings Institution:

…states that authorize these academies (will be required) to eliminate “unnecessary requirements” for state authorization, such as requiring that faculty hold advanced degrees or conduct academic research, that students complete a certain number of credit hours or sequence of coursework for graduation, or that preparation academies receive institutional accreditation from an accrediting body.

  • The idea for all of this reportedly came from the New Schools Venture Fund, a California-based “venture philanthropy firm” with a penchant for lavishing funds on such “innovators” as TFA, the Rocketship charter school chain, and Match Charter School. From the online journal Ed Week:

    The idea is a bit like the “charterization” of ed. schools. It’s the brainchild of folks at the New Schools Venture Fund, and it has in its mind’s eye programs like the Relay Graduate School of Education, the Match Teacher Residency, and Urban Teachers.

  • The lobbying group that fought for this provision (which debuted a few years ago, as the failed GREAT schools Act) is a collection of nine charter school-friendly groups such as TFA (they’re everywhere!), and the Relay and Match “charter-ready” teacher training programs. (Here’s a 2011 article on this “transformation,” from the New York Times.)

The slideshow Porter gave prompted some discussion and questioning, but was mostly absorbed without comment from the crowd. When he finished, Minnesota Department of Ed employee, Stephanie Graff, whose career path typifies TFA’s reach into policy making positions of power, gave more info about how the Gopher state would begin implementing ESSA with, again, the requisite “stakeholder” feedback.

One woman in the crowd asked for the materials on ESSA to be first translated into Minnesota’s “four major languages,” (which she did not specify)–so that parents could get themselves up to speed on the new law before attending a presentation on it.

This kind of exchange was the most “rigorous” of the day, with staffers from groups such as the Minnesota Education Equity Partnership pressing Graff, et al, to rethink their community engagement plans. Graff took the heat well, and promised to be easily accessible via email and phone. (Participants could, for example, help steer Minnesota towards a broader definition of what success looks like; the state could even choose to implement a pilot program in using alternative, performance-based assessments.)

The best moment for me came when a woman openly questioned ESSA’s emphasis on putting “highly effective” teachers in every classroom, based on student achievement (er, test score) gains. 

She asked if there Is any distinction made between “great” and “highly effective” teachers, before making this point: “Some teachers aren’t great on paper, but are very effective at reaching certain populations.”

Coupled with the continued testing and accountability fetish are dangerous provisions that will serve to diminish the quality of the teaching workforce in favor of a competitive teacher preparation market, whose graduates’ worth will be measured by their ability to raise student test scores, and little else. So although federal education policy now operates under a new name, in the ESSA we still have the same testing, conceived within the same neoliberal framework.

–Wayne Au and Jesslyn Hollar, “Opting Out of the Education Reform Industry

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