Gov. Mark Dayton unveiled a proposal Friday to slash the number of tests students take by one-third, inserting himself into a contentious debate about the amount of time children spend taking exams each year.

Dayton, a former schoolteacher, has frequently complained that current testing requirements are a hindrance for students and teachers. Fed up with standardized tests, there are a growing number of parents in Minnesota and in other states who are allowing their children to opt out of the exams.

"My approach does not require abandoning testing outright, and preserves our ability to monitor how students are progressing from year to year," Dayton wrote in a letter to legislative leaders in key education committees in both the House and the Senate. "Further, it represents a reasonable approach to making testing more efficient and effective, so that teachers can better prepare our children for a competitive global marketplace in which creativity, innovation and imagination will be valuable commodities necessary for students to succeed."

Dayton is seeking to eliminate seven out of 21 state or federally required tests: the Minnesota Comprehensive Assessment (MCA) math test for third- and fourth-graders; the MCA reading test for sixth- and seventh-graders; and the Plan, Explore and Compass tests, which are career and college assessments.

The move was quickly embraced by Education Minnesota, the powerful statewide teachers union, which has frequently called for fewer and better tests.

"Gov. Mark Dayton is standing up for students and educators by not only acknowledging the harm caused by excessive testing, but proposing to cut the number of tests by one-third," said Denise Specht, the group's president.

"We're still waiting for all the details, but today's announcement is a big step toward restoring a well-rounded education to Minnesota children."

Dayton's proposal goes much further than recommendations recently issued by a state working group convened to look at testing requirements.

The group recommended the state eliminate the Plan, Explore and Compass tests as well as the MCA science exam for high school students.

It advised keeping the MCAs for grades three through eight.

House Republicans, who last week introduced legislation that largely mirrors the working group's recommendations, were critical of Dayton's plan, which they say goes too far.

"I think he [Dayton] should have followed the governor-appointed working group's recommendations," said Rep. Sondra Erickson, R-Princeton. "I think he should honor their work."

Jim Bartholomew, a member of the testing working group, said he failed to see the rationale in Dayton's proposal.

"My initial sense is this proposal goes in reverse of what the task force had considered," said Bartholomew, education policy director for the Minnesota Business Partnership. "So much for that."

Proposal faces hurdles

State education officials said that eliminating the math tests for elementary students would allow schools to focus on key early literacy skills while continuing to work on math concepts. They also emphasized that high school students would still have access to career and college surveys.

"Kids will still be tested in grades three-to-eight and tested at every grade span, enough that we will still be able to monitor year-to-year progress," said Charlene Briner, chief of staff for the Minnesota Department of Education.

The governor's proposal faces several significant state and federal obstacles. First, state lawmakers would have to sign off.

Then, since the MCAs are federally required tests, it would likely require a change in federal education law, or the U.S. Department of Education would have to modify Minnesota's waiver to No Child Left Behind.

The state recently submitted a waiver application to federal education officials and expects to have a decision soon.

In addition to the state and federal tests, many school districts opt to take other tests.

Many administrators and teachers prefer those tests because they give quick feedback and help them target interventions to students that need extra help.

Sen. Charles Wiger, D-Maplewood, who chairs the Senate Education Committee, applauded Dayton's proposal and said it reduces the overall testing burden on students, but allows school districts to maintain local control over many testing decisions.

"I would hope it could have strong bipartisan support," he said of Dayton's proposal.

In February, Education Commissioner Brenda Cassellius recommended to lawmakers that they consider putting a limit on the amount of time students spend on standardized testing.

Specifically, she suggested that school districts spend no more than 2 percent of instructional time on standardized tests.

Currently, Minnesota elementary students are required a minimum of 935 hours of school.

Under that scenario, a district could not test more than 18.7 hours.

Bartholomew said he thought Cassellius' idea had merit.

"I think if you really want to address the issue of over-testing, you have to think about all the tests districts take, particularly some of these optional tests," Bartholomew said.

"It was disappointing the governor's proposal didn't acknowledge that."

Kim McGuire • 612-673-4469