Mark Dayton: Who benefits from our test obsession?

  • Article by: MARK DAYTON
  • Updated: June 4, 2009 - 7:02 PM

Not students. Mostly the point is to criticize schools. There's a better way.

Minnesota's obsession with educational testing recently reached its ultimate absurdity. A new law requires that high school juniors, in order to graduate, must either pass the state's math test or fail it three times. It is hard to fathom what message that is supposed to send to those students, except that it epitomizes the idiocy of the testing to which they have been subjected since third grade.

In recent years, federal and state student testing has increased even more rapidly than class sizes. Minnesota students must now take standardized tests in third, fourth, fifth, sixth, seventh, eight, ninth, 10th and 11th grades. Many teachers have told me that they must spend excessive amounts of time teaching students to take these tests, that the tests crowd out other curricula and that they are destructive to students' interest in the subjects.

Almost as absurd, the tests are given in early spring, but the results are not made available until after the end of the school year. Thus, they are of no value to teachers, administrators and parents in assessing students' progress or lack thereof, while there is still time to make midyear adjustments.

Why would the state subject students to repeated testing, which is of little value to their academic progress? It is because most enthusiasm for testing has more to do with labeling and blaming public schools for their supposed "failures" than with helping individual students to succeed.

In contrast to this obtuse method to humiliate students and punish schools, I recently witnessed a very different approach in elementary schools in the St. Croix River Education District and the Lakeville Area Public School District. Their testing is part of a comprehensive strategy to assess and improve each student's reading skills in kindergarten, first and second grades, from the beginning to the end of the school year. A one-minute reading test of each student in the fall establishes initial benchmarks and identifies "at risk" children. These students are provided with supplemental reading development strategies, and their progress is measured by weekly, one-minute tests. By analyzing the students' response, teachers are better able to meet their needs. Teachers are continuously informed about what is working with each child and what is not. Parents can also be given objective information about their children's strengths and challenges and about what they can do at home to enhance the schools' efforts.

This method's intent, its approach and, most important, its success make it a vastly preferable alternative to the state and federal governments' more punitive approach. By giving teachers the tools to track student progress, classrooms can once again serve as a place to learn, not as high-stakes testing centers.

One of the appeals of student testing is its central role in assigning "accountability" to schools, teachers and educational systems. Accountability, however, should start at the top. When it comes to "making acceptable progress" in developing and implementing a coherent and consistent state testing program, Minnesota's leaders need some remedial education.

Mark Dayton, a former U.S. senator from Minnesota, is a DFL candidate for governor.

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