ST. PAUL - Gov. Mark Dayton’s proposal to cut the number of tests Minnesota students take hinges not just on the approval of state lawmakers, but also on potential changes to federal education legislation.

Most of the tests Dayton wants to eliminate are required under the federal No Child Left Behind (NCLB) law. That legislation mandates that states measure student achievement annually between third grade and high school and report the results.

Now might be Minnesota’s best chance to deviate from federal testing mandates. The Republican-led Congress is working on a long overdue rewrite of NCLB, and Minnesota’s current waiver from some requirements of the law is considered by many to be a great example of how to balance school accountability and autonomy.

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Minnesota is one of 44 states to be granted a waiver from what many say is a flaw in NCLB that required all students to meet grade-level benchmarks by 2014. In exchange, Minnesota educators agreed to enhance efforts to close the state’s nation-leading achievement gap between poor and minority students and their peers.

Brenda Cassellius, state education commissioner, said Minnesota’s waiver brought new focus to the state’s biggest education challenges. Leaders vowed to cut the state’s achievement gap in half by 2017.

“With the waiver arrived urgency, and we were able to develop a program that worked for us,” Cassellius said, adding that NCLB still needs a permanent fix. “We are very serious about getting it fixed, but we want a good bill.”

Yet, winning federal approval to eliminate mandated tests will be a tough sell.

Most conservative lawmakers in Minnesota and Washington, D.C., support annual testing. Arne Duncan, the U.S. education secretary, has not looked kindly on proposals to skip annual proficiency measures.

“We are not retreating from our accountability system at all,” Cassellius said. “I think we can make our case to the feds, but I do think it will be an uphill battle.”

Proposed changes

Two members of Minnesota’s congressional delegation again will be in the middle of efforts to replace the No Child Left Behind law.

U.S. Rep. John Kline, R-Lakeville, chairs the House of Representatives’ education committee and U.S. Sen. Al Franken, a Democrat, sits on the Senate education committee.

Kline is chief sponsor of an NCLB rewrite that nearly made it through the House before stalling last month.

The legislation has critics on both sides of the aisle, but Kline says it also includes things both Democrats and Republicans support. He said he is confident it will clear the House floor in the coming months.

Kline’s bill would rein in the authority of the U.S. Department of Education over the states and eliminate the NCLB waiver process.

“That has given enormous power and discretion to Secretary Duncan,” Kline said of waivers. “That’s an intolerable place for us as a nation, where we have one person, the secretary of education in Washington, deciding what the law should be.”

While it gives states more control, Kline’s bill would continue to require annual proficiency testing.

“In our bill, we require testing because we think it is important for parents and principals and school boards and state leaders to get a report card on how schools are doing,” Kline said.

Annual tests also are supported by groups such as the Minnesota Business Partnership and state Chamber of Commerce, who believe the exams are the best way to judge school performance.

Kline’s proposal also would consolidate or eliminate more than 65 existing programs designed to help disadvantaged students that he says are ineffective. In their place, schools would receive funding in the form of a block grant that administrators could spend on programs they find effective.

“We specifically set out to fix that problem and give local schools much more flexibility to spend that money,” Kline said.

But that piece of Kline’s bill is particularly controversial with Democrats, who say it will hurt the nation’s most vulnerable students. President Barack Obama has vowed to veto it.

That doesn’t mean efforts to replace NCLB are doomed. Democratic support is needed for anything to pass the Senate, and Sens. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., and Patty Murray, D-Wash., are expected to detail a bipartisan fix to NCLB next month.

Both Kline and Franken say that if the House and Senate can pass a bill, then hopefully a bipartisan compromise can emerge from a conference committee.

“I think the only way to do this is in a bipartisan way,” Franken said. “This is too important. Nothing is more important than education. We have to do something that works for all students.”

Franken says his colleagues in the Senate and the House could take a cue from some of the things that have been successful in Minnesota. Specifically, Franken supports how Minnesota measures a student’s academic growth, not just proficiency.

Franken agreed that educators should take a hard look at the number and type of tests students take.

“We’ve learned a lot about what doesn’t work,” Franken said. “We have to find some sweet spot here. To me, what’s important is measuring the growth of kids and doing it in a way that we’re not just drilling and killing.”

Minnesota’s waiver

By most accounts, Minnesota’s NCLB waiver has been a success. The state was one of the first to be granted NCLB flexibility in 2012, and federal regulators have been happy enough with it to fast-track requests for renewal.

Later this month, Minnesota Department of Education officials expect to hear whether their latest waiver application is renewed for as many as four years.

Commissioner Cassellius says Minnesota’s system has been a success because it has buy-in from teachers, school leaders, stakeholders and lawmakers from both parties. That’s not to say there are no critics, but criticism is typically focused on the system’s finer points.

“We have really been able to do our waiver without a lot of rancor,” Cassellius said. “Minnesota didn’t seek to upend the entire law; it just sought flexibility from its most onerous parts.”

At the heart of Minnesota’s new accountability system is a Multiple Measurement Rating, or MMR, given to each school to grade performance using students’ academic growth, proficiency, graduation rates and the school’s progress in closing achievement gaps.

Struggling schools can turn to a half dozen “Centers of Excellence” across the state for coaching and support. A new system of evaluating teachers and principals focuses on both improving performance and removing ineffective educators.

“Now everyone is held accountable, and every school has an achievement-gap measure,” Cassellius said.

While she’s hopeful Congress can permanently fix NCLB, Cassellius said she doesn’t think Minnesota will need to change direction.

“I don’t think anything currently proposed in the House or Senate would upend anything we have done with our waiver,” she said.

As for deviating from federal testing rules, those plans would require a series of legislative and administrative victories, something Cassellius admits will be tough.

“I do think we are taking a smart approach to test reduction,” she said.

The Pioneer Press is a media partner of Forum News Service.