Watertown-Mayer schools earn high marks in new accountability system

By Matt Bunke, Community Editor

Watertown-Mayer Schools received high marks when the Minnesota Department of Education released information in late May on how school districts across the state are faring based on the state’s new accountability system.

Both the high school and middle school received scores that would place them in the top 15 percent of schools statewide and give them a "Reward School" designation if they were eligible to receive such a designation. However, only schools that receive Title I funding for low-income students actually receive a designation based on the new statistics, and neither the high school or middle school receive such funding.

The elementary school fell a bit short of those same levels, but still posted a strong number. Overall, Nick Guertin, director of teaching and learning for Watertown-Mayer schools, was pleased with the initial numbers.

"I think (the scores) are just reflective of our commitment to focusing on student achievement," Guertin said. "We were very pleased."

The new system, called the Multiple Measurement Rating, or MMR, was made possible by the state’s 2-year waiver from the controversial No Child Left Behind program. Under that system, schools were measured based solely on a single standardized test used to determine the school’s Annual Yearly Progress. Schools were then designated simply as "failing" or not "failing," which the Department of Education says led to many high-achieving schools being mislabeled as failing.

Under the new MMR system, schools will be measured on several equally weighted criteria. The schools will be measured on proficiency on state tests, student growth from year to year, how much they have reduced the performance gap between sub-groups of students, and at the high school level, theschool’s graduation rate.

Points are assigned in each of the categories based on a school’s percentile rank among schools with the same grade range. The total MMR score that a school receives is the percentage of possible points that the school earned.

Schools that earn Title I funding for low-income students can earn one of three designations, or fall somewhere in the middle. The top 15 percent of Title I schools are designated as "Reward Schools," while the bottom five percent are designated as "Priority Schools." The 10 percent of schools that make the biggest contribution to the state’s achievement gap are designated as "Focus Schools."

Watertown-Mayer Middle School fared the strongest among the district’s three schools, earning a score of 88.35 based on results from the last two years. The cutoff score to be in the top 15 percent of Title I schools and earn the Reward School designation was 79.05, placing Watertown-Mayer well above that number. However, because the school does not receive Title I funding, it did not actually receive any designation.

Watertown-Mayer High School also fared well, scoring a 79.96. The cutoff among Title I schools to receive the Reward School designation was 76.15, with Watertown-Mayer once again surpassing that number. However, the high school also does not receive Title I funding, and therefore did not receive a designation.

Watertown-Mayer Elementary School does receive Title I funding, but fell short of making the top 15 percent of schools statewide. The school scored a 71.86, and did not receive any designation from the Department of Education.

The initial MMR scores are based on results from 2010 and 2011, and are intended to serve as a baseline for future progress. School districts will receive a new MMR score in August that is based on results from this school year.

The Department of Education believes the new MMR system is much fairer in the way it holds schools accountable, The system also removes punitive sanctions that were previously in place for underperforming schools, and provides support for schools that are most in need of assistance.

"The big difference between this and not making AYP is this doesn’t feel as punitive," Guertin said. "In this system, if we show an appropriate amount of growth each year, then we get additional funding. Before, if we didn’t show those things, they withheld certain amounts of money."

Guertin said it was too soon to make any real judgments about how accurately the MMR system will measure schools, and how much it will support growth in student achievement. But he did say the general consensus is that it will be favored far more then NCLB and AYP.

"Time will tell in terms of whether or not it’s a more feasible way to support student achievement and growth," he said. "I’m glad Minnesota did step in and ask for the waiver (from NCLB), because I don’t know that anybody was happy with what we were doing."

"We’ll be interested to take a look at how things play out," he added. "It’s too soon to make any real generalizations."