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.
A few years ago, Mounds View Public Schools began paying for all juniors to take the ACT to spur students to think about life after high school.
"We can't wait until kids get into high school to get kids thinking about postsecondary options," said Superintendent Dan Hoverman. "They have to know if they don't work hard, success is going to be hard to come by."
But some administrators warn their peers to resist the temptation to make determinations about a child's college potential too early.
"When we start doing that, then we become a factory with a lot of conveyor belts that move kids around," said Paul Brashear, assessment coordinator for the North St. Paul-Maplewood district. "Parents don't want that. Teachers don't want that."
The future of testing
In Minnesota, not only is the focus of standardized tests changing, so is the way schools deliver them.
Last school year, about 95 percent of the MCA math exams and 30 percent of the reading exams were given online. State law requires MCA reading exams to be adaptive by the 2015-16 school year, though Minnesota education officials say it may be sooner.
In an adaptive test, questions are asked on a student's individualized skill level based on prior responses. The more questions a student gets right, the harder the test gets.
As more schools embrace iPads and other devices, it seems likely that they will be able to offer more of their own adaptive tests, Heistad said.
"It's a big advancement," he said. "Adaptive tests give teachers the power to create a stronger instructional response. That's where it's headed."
It's unclear whether state teaching standards for science, reading and math will change in the next few years, but most education advocates say students need more consistent goals to achieve more.
In the past four years, reading, science and math standards have been strengthened, and with each change, MCA scores have been affected. For example, the most recent statewide reading scores fell by 19 percent.
"While we support tougher standards, we agree with Commissioner Cassellius. It's time to stop moving the goalposts," said Daniel Sellers, executive director of the education reform group MinnCAN.
State education officials and school administrators say the reading test administered last year was radically different from the one given in 2011-12 and that no one should compare them. But they also don't dismiss the value of the MCAs.
And that can be confusing to parents who are trying to determine how their child is faring in school.
"I really empathize with parents trying to make sense of it all," Heistad said.