From President Obama’s recent call to cap classroom time spent on assessments to Gov. Mark Dayton’s renewed push to scale back annual testing (“New push to curtail K-12 testing,” Oct. 29), there’s been a lot of talk recently about testing in schools.

Like many, I agree with Obama that “learning is about more than filling in the right bubble.” However, I worry that an equally important component of his proposed testing plan is being overlooked: We still need high-quality, annual assessments that measure whether all kids are on track.

In fact, as Obama says, such tests are “essential.” Here’s why:

What gets measured gets done.

As our only statewide annual student test, the Minnesota Comprehensive Assessments (MCAs) are just that, and they serve as the most effective, objective way to understand how well kids are learning, how well they will do in college and career, and where resources and attention must be placed.

And yet, Dayton has proposed significantly reducing the MCAs, eliminating math tests in third and fourth grade and reading tests in sixth and seventh grade.

If we do not regularly measure student achievement across schools, student groups and districts, we will not know which need more support and intervention. We also won’t know which schools are making the most progress to help students thrive, nor how to craft policies and programs to ramp up and replicate the great work of their students, teachers and administrators.

Finally, if we roll back the MCAs as Dayton has proposed, students and their families wouldn’t have a clear, objective understanding of their academic progress during gaps in standards-based testing. This would be especially harmful for our historically underserved learners — namely, children of color — who can’t afford to fall through the cracks.

To meet the needs of our most underserved students, we need data on how our kids are doing and who needs the most help. By cutting down the MCAs, equity in education will be much more difficult to accomplish.

For many students of color, Minnesota trails in national rankings.

This week, the 2015 National Assessment of Education Progress (NAEP) results, also known as “the Nation’s Report Card,” came out, providing the most trusted measure of student achievement across the nation.

When we compare students across the country, apples to apples, which NAEP lets us do, we see that many of Minnesota’s kids of color are not where they need to be. This is particularly true when it comes to early literacy, an important predictor for students’ later academic success.

For fourth-grade reading scores, Minnesota ranks 39th among all states for black students and 46th, or tied for last, for Latino students. To put this in context, an average black or Latino fourth-grader learning to read would be better off as a student in Tennessee or Texas than in Minnesota.

Contrast these depressing stats with one of the bright spots NAEP results revealed — that since 2013, Colorado made large gains for black students in fourth-grade reading. In just two years, Colorado moved its black students from ranking 24th in fourth-grade reading to ranking fifth, all while narrowing achievement gaps.

We can, and should, learn from those states that are doing better than us. On far too many measures, Minnesota has become a laggard instead of a leader when it comes to educating students of color.

We must stay focused on what’s possible.

Annual, standards-based assessments like the MCAs give us the road map to become the education leader we want to be. They provide reliable and regular reminders of the achievement gaps we have to close, and, by identifying changing-the-odds Minnesota schools, proof that closing them is possible. We can — and should — test less, but not at the expense of this critical information.

In the end, student assessments can show us what’s possible and give us proof that there are indeed states, schools and educators making progress toward getting every kid on track for college and career. They give us guidance on how to make all schools and states the bright spots they can and must become.

 

Daniel Sellers is executive director of MinnCAN — the Minnesota Campaign for Achievement Now.