Let’s all think hard about what is truly behind the probable demise of the Minnesota Comprehensive Assessments.
The MCAs are the key assessment component of the system of accountability that has governed our public schools for the last decade. Each April, MCAs in math and reading are given for grades three through eight. The results are reported to students and their families, but are not as a rule used to determine whether a child moves to the next grade level.
At the high school level, two assessments are given that do affect the academic status of students — with regard to qualifying for a high school diploma. These two GRAD (Graduation Required Assessment for Diploma) tests include the GRAD Writing Test given at grade nine and the Grade 10 Reading MCA.
Two key points:
1. The MCAs represent accurate assessments of a student’s mastery of math and reading skills needed at a given grade level.
2. Embarrassed by a persistent achievement gap in the results for low-income students and students of color, public school administrators and teachers have exerted great pressure on Gov. Mark Dayton and members of both houses in the DFL-dominated Legislature to terminate the MCAs. These politicians will most likely comply, since Education Minnesota (the key teachers union) and other groups within the education establishment are big contributors to DFL campaigns.
To understand what I mean when I say the MCAs represent good measures of grade-level skill mastery, go to the Minnesota Department of Education website and find the “Item Samplers.” There is a disclaimer to the effect that the samplers should not be used to predict performance on the actual MCA. But they do provide an idea of the skills necessary to do well on the grade-level assessments.
Find, for example, the Grade 3 Mathematics Item Sampler. You’ll see questions calling for a demonstration of skills one surely would expect of a third-grader — addition and subtraction, rounding a number, fundamental multiplication and division, recognition of perpendicular and parallel lines, recognition of basic fractions, and so on.
Now find the Grade 5 Mathematics Item Sampler. Again, questions involve grade-appropriate concepts — place value, rounding, decimals, inequalities, number lines, graphing, order of operations and introductory geometry. These skills, too, are tied to Minnesota state academic standards for students in grade five.
Peruse the math MCAs at other grade levels, and you’ll see similar grade-appropriate items. Find the Item Samplers for reading, and you’ll see selections for grade-appropriate vocabulary and comprehension.
Now find items meant to give students a strong idea of what to expect on the GRAD tests.
At grade 9, students are asked to construct a coherent essay that answers a very simple question, which in past years has been posed in forms such as, “If you could change one rule in your school, what would it be?” or “What is your favorite character from a movie, play, or work of literature?”
The current selections for the grade 10 reading MCA Item Sampler are a poem that requires understanding of metaphor, simile and personification; an article concerning efforts to save a rare porpoise, and an exercise calling for students to read two selections concerning the building of the Eiffel Tower, one an informational article and the other a diary entry.
Any student whose academic skills merit a high school diploma should be able to demonstrate grade-level performance on such matters.
As to the grade 11 math MCA, if we had effective instruction in the United States like that in Finland and many nations of East Asia, our students should be able to pass that one, too.
But, of course, this is Minnesota, in the United States, where math and science instruction is of such poor quality as to deny our students the knowledge and skill sets imparted by the best international school systems. So a student may proceed to graduation if she or he has not passed the grade 11 math MCA after three tries.
Minnesota Education Commissioner Brenda Cassellius and other members of the education establishment now deride this “three strikes and you’re in” system as if it weren’t their silly idea in the first place.
I am a liberal Democrat. But I am above all an educator who interacts with impoverished students and their families in north Minneapolis seven days a week. And I know that when the highly valid MCAs meet their demise, it will not be for any viable academic reason, but because DFL politicians have caved in once again to the education establishment.
Gary Marvin Davison is the author of eight books; he was writer and researcher for “The State of African Americans in Minnesota” (Minneapolis Urban League, 2004 and 2008 editions). For eight years, he has served as teacher and administrator for the New Salem Educational Initiative.