Although Minnesota and local school districts spend considerable time and money on standardized tests, their usefulness is limited. Too many local educators have difficulty interpreting and using the state test data to help students. And over the years, the tests were used to attempt to measure too many things.
Those are among the findings of a recently released state legislative auditor's report. The results should prompt state officials to reevaluate and streamline required student testing.
Minnesota requires districts to administer two exams each year — the Minnesota Comprehensive Assessment (MCAs) and the ACCESS test for English Language Learners. Both are given to meet federal testing rules.
Last year, the state spent $19.2 million on standardized tests, with the federal government picking up one-third of that amount. A majority of state school districts set aside at least three to five weeks for MCA testing in 2016. Staff often are diverted from other duties and nearly one in five districts and charter schools hired additional staff to administer the tests and had to cover the additional costs. A requirement that tests be given electronically also means some districts spend time rotating students among available computers, which adds to the time needed for testing, according to the report from the respected Office of the Legislative Auditor (OLA).
A large majority of teachers and principals who responded to the OLA survey said MCA scores help pinpoint achievement gaps and determine whether students meet standards. Still, they believe the local exams they select and pay for are more helpful in evaluating student needs.
Among the OLA's key recommendations are: The Minnesota Department of Education (MDE) should collect more information for local schools on the costs and impact of state tests to help inform policy choices; the education department should expand support to schools to help understand and use the test data; and the Legislature should remove or re-examine certain legal requirements that prescribe specific test designs or reporting formats, and instead clarify overall testing priorities.
Those are smart starting points to reevaluate what the tests should accomplish. The report noted that the exams are now used for multiple purposes, including measuring growth, proficiency, evaluating teachers and course placement at state colleges. Those legislative efforts to make the MCA measure too much generally didn't work, according to the OLA.
However, before changes can occur state officials must have a clear understanding of how the new Trump administration interprets testing rules. Under current federal law, testing is mandated in reading, math and science in middle and high school. But other specifics of federal requirements from the new administration are unknown.
MDE officials called the OLA report "thorough and fair'' and agreed to increase outreach to school districts to help them use the test data successfully. And to MDE's credit, the OLA said the department has done a good job of selecting and monitoring its test vendors. The auditor was originally asked to study state testing, in part, because of a couple of highly publicized test results mistakes that occurred a few years ago.
Ultimately, state officials need to settle on a test that aligns with state and federal standards and allows for district-to-district and state-to-state comparisons. They need to focus on setting priorities for what they want from the tests and make sure that local districts have the support they need to use the results effectively.