Errors found in bleak report on Minneapolis schools

Despite revising some of their findings, researchers at the Center on Reinventing Public Education urge large U.S. cities to learn from "discouraging" data

An organization whose report on urban schools painted a bleak picture of the state of education in Minneapolis revised its findings Friday.

Minneapolis ranked last in its four-year high school graduation rate out of 50 major cities included in the report released Wednesday, which also put the rate of ACT and SAT test-taking at just 4 percent. The latter finding provoked widespread skepticism about the reliability of the data, and two days later the Center on Reinventing Public Education acknowledged multiple errors.

The Seattle-based education policy group now reports about 12 percent of Minneapolis students in both district and public charter schools took the ACT or SAT in 2011–2012, three times the originally reported rate. CRPE placed the blame on errors in data schools reported to the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights.

The original figures surprised staff members at the Minnesota Department of Education, who spokesman Josh Collins said detected flaws in the methodology.

“As we were trying to look through (the report), we could come nowhere near that 4 percent ACT figure until we figured out they were counting some schools numerous times in the denominator,” Collins said.

He also said combining data from district schools and Minneapolis charters was “tricky,” because the public “hear(s) data talking about schools in Minneapolis, they think of it as Minneapolis Public Schools.”

But capturing city-level outcomes in an increasingly fractured educational system was part of the point.

“When you have a system that’s spread out like that, we were finding it really hard to figure out, how are all of the schools in the system, in a city, doing, and what does that mean for families and parents?” Mike DeArmond, a CRPE senior research analyst, said.

Chris Stewart, a former member of the Minneapolis Board of Education, said the focus should be on the racial and income-based disparities in urban schools, not on flaws in the report. Measuring Up highlights what was already well known: In Minneapolis and other big-city districts, poor children and children of color tend to be concentrated in low-performing schools.

“To still have seriously nagging racial disparities is a huge call out for any of us who live in places where we are really confident that we are seriously invested in racial equity, and Minneapolis is one of those places,” Stewart, now director of outreach and external affairs for Education Post, said.

Noting the high rates of imprisonment for high school dropouts, Stewart described the graduation data as especially troubling for Minneapolis.

“To have the lowest four-year high school graduation rate among 50 cities is huge,” he said.

Eric Vanden Berk, a data researcher with Minneapolis Public Schools, said CRPE’s reporting on graduation rates didn’t account for students who graduate in five or six years.

“They’re just repackaging information that’s already out there and they’re picking the data that fits the narrative that they want,” Vanden Berk said.

Affiliated with the University of Washington–Bothell, the center has produced research that supports charter schools and challenges teacher tenure protections.

CRPE on Friday also revised down the city’s out-of-school suspension rate and found a narrower disparity between the rates of suspensions for white students and black students than originally reported.

There remained questions about the methodology of CRPE researchers.

For instance, they calculated ACT/SAT test-taking rates by comparing the number of test-takers to total high school enrollment, even though students typically take the tests in their junior or senior years. The most recent figures reported by the Office of Civil Rights are also four years old.

“You could also say, oh my goodness, no middle schoolers in the state took the ACT, but that doesn’t mean anything because they wouldn’t take it anyway,” Collins said.

The report acknowledges that the tests are typically taken in the 11th and 12th grades, creating the expectation that about 25–50 percent of high school students would take the exams in any given year.

DeArmond said the report paints a “discouraging” picture of big city education, but that it could be used to find the “bright spots” where district and charter schools are succeeding.

“I think that no city looks good on every measure, so it’s really clear that these are huge social challenges and problems that everybody has a lot of work to do on across these cities,” he said.