Despite opt-out trend, tests have place in education

  • Article by: EDITORIAL BOARD , Star Tribune
  • Updated: May 9, 2014 - 6:59 PM

Cut out excessive exams, but not all standardized tests.

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In New York, an estimated 30,000 students in grades three through eight chose not to take statewide tests this spring. In Utah, several hundred students opted out of standardized tests.

And as part of a still small but growing movement, 240 Minneapolis kids opted out of a district test, while 408 aren’t taking this spring’s state MCA exam. Most of those students attend either South or Southwest high schools or Barton Open school.

The local backlash has been encouraged by classroom teachers who believe too much testing has narrowed the curriculum and is detrimental to student learning. They let parents know that they have the right under federal law to opt out of exams the schools require.

But is boycotting tests the right way to encourage learning? In some cases, parents and teachers have justifiable concerns. During the last decade under federal No Child Left Behind rules, many districts believed they needed additional tests to be more accountable. They devised their own exams, in part, because they felt they weren’t getting the information they needed to improve achievement from state tests. Or they didn’t receive state results in a timely enough manner to help them with their students.

But those who want to eliminate standardized testing altogether take those worries too far. There is value in assessing what students learn. Effective assessments provide important information to state and federal officials to help set education policy. Good test data can also be useful to teachers, parents and students to improve learning.

Still, we understand why some teachers and parents have pushed back after test preparation and test taking exploded under the data-driven NCLB law. Test scores began to be used to rank and label schools, and they were sometimes used in teacher evaluations. Some parents were concerned that the sheer volume of tests throughout the year created unnecessary anxiety for their children.

The Minnesota Department of Education has already begun to respond to those issues with state tests given once a year in several grades. The MCAs are aligned with state standards and can be used to guide what’s being taught, thus eliminating the need for many additional district-imposed exams. The 11th-grade test, similar to the ACT college entrance exam, can also serve several purposes for students in one test rather than two or three.

And educators can now get immediate feedback about those test results rather than waiting months for the scores.

During his recent State of the State address, Gov. Mark Dayton shared some parent concerns, calling the amount of testing in many Minnesota schools “excessive’’ and “counterproductive.’’ He said that school district leaders should not abandon testing altogether but that they should do more efficient, effective assessments.

To that end, he has asked the state Education Department to survey and analyze the testing done in Minnesota’s K-12 schools. During next year’s legislative session, the department will recommend which tests can be streamlined, combined or eliminated. The governor urged legislators to use the recommendations to reduce the number of assessments so educators can spend more time teaching instead of testing.

Evaluating student performance through standardized tests is a valuable part of K-12 education. It is one measure — but not the only one — that can be used to determine what students know and can do. Good assessments can also be used as part of educator evaluations. The key is striking the right balance between assessment and instruction, and making sure that tests are effective, that they truly measure what is taught, and that they are used to support and direct learning.

  • TWO VIEWS

    “Testing got a bad rap under NCLB with the high stakes, punitive mentality and putting schools on failing and not failing lists … and in some schools the testing became excessive. But at the state policy level, we need the statewide test to know where kids are and where to direct additional resources.’’

    BRENDA CASSELLIUS, Minnesota commissioner of education

    • • •

    “In our professional opinions, these tests interfere with real learning and are poor measures of student growth.’’

    FOUR MINNEAPOLIS NINTH-GRADE TEACHERS, who last fall wrote parents to inform them of their right to opt out of the MAP test at South High School

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