Isabel Rousmaniere cannot remember the last time she took a state-mandated standardized exam, and she is still in high school.
Rousmaniere, a senior at South High school in Minneapolis, is one of hundreds of students at the school who refuse to take the Minnesota Comprehensive Assessments in math, reading and science, which wrap up in May.
“I am very done with standardized testing,” she said recently. “This afternoon, someone handed me a form and said you could opt out of the science MCA. I didn’t even know I still had to take that.”
South High had the highest number of students opting out of the assessments last year, a right they have under state law. Only 48 students took the math exam in 11th grade — out of 405 students. Statewide, less than 2 percent of all students opted out of that test.
South’s students, teachers and principal say the school culture rejects the idea that the tests are necessary to gauge the success of students. Instead, they choose to focus on graduation rates, access to high-level classes and college. Their views reflect a movement, often led by parents and union activists, that has taken hold in other states, especially New York and New Jersey.
Other education officials and experts say statewide exams are a critical tool in holding schools accountable and are necessary to reveal gaps in achievement among racial groups and between rich and poor students.
“The larger concern isn’t whether or not they are taking the test, but what are we doing to close the achievement gap between students,” said Eric Moore, the director of Minneapolis’ research, evaluation and assessment department.
Focus on other measures
South Principal Ray Aponte said the school still focuses on equity and ensuring all students are “college ready.” But they don’t look at an MCA score.
Instead, Aponte focuses on the number of high-level classes that the school offers and tracks how many students of color are taking them. He and his staff also keep an eye on their graduation rates and encourage students to focus on their college entrance exams.
In 2015 the school saw its highest graduation rate in five years, with 79 percent of the senior class graduating on time. “I just can’t get a true measure of all of that on an MCA, so for me it’s hard to view that as a viable score,” Aponte said.
Moore, who analyzes the district’s test scores each year, said that it is “unfortunate that so many students are opting out.” As a result, the district is unable to determine what supports the school might need to improve student achievement.
Parents are also unable to see how well their children are mastering state standards, Moore said, adding that the 10th-grade reading test is a good indicator of how well students will score on college entrance exams.
Reading scores at South last year appeared to have tanked, showing only 29 percent of students meeting state standards, down from 71 percent five years ago. But that’s because only 75 students took the exam, compared to 461 in 2011. “There are huge implications for the general perception of that school,” Moore said.
Aponte agrees, somewhat.
He said he has had to do “damage control” because the scores appear to be so low.
“People say, well you dropped 40 points,” Aponte said. “It’s not a viable score when 60 percent of the kids aren’t taking it.”
In New York state, 20 percent of all students opted out of the tests last year. That prompted education officials to make a number of changes to try to appease critics. They shortened the tests, removed time limits and said the assessments were no longer a factor in teacher evaluations.
Abdinasir Abdulkadir, a senior, is one of the students who did not take any of his MCAs. His parents care a lot about exams, especially college entrance tests. His mother and father came to the United States from Somalia for a better future, so they place a strong emphasis on his test results, Abdulkadir said.
“When I found out I could opt out, I had to sit down and explain to them that I do not want to take these tests because they are not helping me in any way,” he said.
Abdulkadir said he was in a computer lab taking one of the exams when he found out that his parents could sign a form opting him out. That’s when he requested an opt-out form.
He and another group of classmates put together a podcast and video documentary that argues standardized exams were created only to assess the abilities of white, middle-class students and create a “skewed measure” of what subjects and concepts a student has mastered.
“It should be focused on the individual and where their strengths are,” said Sam Stroup, one of the students who created the documentary.
For Rousmaniere, who is a National Merit scholar finalist, her focus has been on taking advanced courses and on getting into college.
“I am really grateful for South. My teachers are always aware of what I need,” she said. “I’ve always felt like a human being and not a bubble-filling machine.”