Role of standardized tests changing in Minnesota

  • Article by: KIM MCGUIRE , Star Tribune
  • Updated: August 31, 2013 - 7:01 PM

Standardized exams are increasingly being viewed as a way to track college readiness and offer better feedback to schools.

The proof that the standardized test is evolving from a high-stakes, sometimes punitive tool to an information provider was in evidence last week after the release of tepid scores on this spring’s state exams.

Notably absent were the alarms that historically would have followed such a showing on the Minnesota Comprehensive Assessments (MCAs) — 57 percent proficiency on a tough new reading test, 61 percent proficiency in math, and no sign that the state’s achievement gap between white and minority students is narrowing.

“There are so many other kinds of achievement tests out there,” said Dave Heistad, a national school data expert who works for Bloomington’s public schools. “If all the other tests show me the student is on track, I’m not going to put much credence in an abhorrent score.”

Love them or loathe them, standardized tests are likely to be a mainstay in Minnesota schools for years to come.

But their role is evolving, many educators say.

Rather than being used to monitor and sometimes punish students, teachers or schools, some tests are being reshaped to help determine whether students are prepared for a career or college.

Increasingly, they’re also being used to provide feedback to teachers, something that can be done quickly now that more students are taking the tests online.

“We will always use assessments,” said Education Commissioner Brenda Cassellius, who spearheaded a drive to get the Legislature to scrap graduation tests this spring. “They are an essential part of teaching and learning. But we must continue to think about how we use them.”

Not everyone thinks it’s a good idea to ratchet down high-stakes testing. Many education reform advocates say they are vital to holding schools and teachers accountable.

“Without that data, we won’t know how kids are performing and how that performance changes over time,” said Kathy Saltzman, Minnesota director of StudentsFirst. “Parents have a right to know if their kids are performing at grade level.”

Not just about proficiency

Opposition to mandated testing is not limited to Minnesota, or to the teachers unions that have historically opposed them.

Texas Gov. Rick Perry signed legislation this year reducing the number of standardized tests from 15 — the nation’s highest — to five. In Seattle, groups of teachers refused to give the tests, and the New York State Principals association has railed against tests to state education officials.

This summer, the St. Paul Federation of Teachers proposed during contract talks that the district opt out of the state and federally mandated MCAs, arguing that teachers spend too much class time preparing students for the test.

Much of the opposition to standardized tests is centered on the exams’ power to punish low-achieving schools, teachers and students. But in Minnesota, that power is waning.

In 2012, the waiver granted to the state from No Child Left Behind freed schools from being designated “failures” and receiving sanctions for poor scores. It also prompted the creation of a nuanced state ranking system that factors in things like growth, graduation rates and achievement-gap reduction between minority and white students.

And this spring, legislators scrapped the state test seniors had to pass to graduate and replaced it with a college entrance-like exam. It’s a move widely supported by Cassellius, Gov. Mark Dayton and many school administrators.

Several districts already test high school students — and some middle school students — to determine whether students seem on track to go to college or not.

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