Minnesota students will once again be taking standardized tests this spring after a one-year hiatus.
But the logistics of administering the Minnesota Comprehensive Assessments, or MCAs, during the pandemic have raised new questions about the results and how they might be used. The tests must be given in person, presenting challenges for students who are still in distance learning. And if a large number of students opt out for health and safety reasons, the results could provide a less accurate snapshot of student proficiency.
Still, advocates of the tests say they offer a chance to identify the learning loss that students experienced over the last year, even without the direct comparison from 2020.
"The tests are meant to serve primarily as a systems check and to understand how students are doing overall," said Bobbie Burnham, an assistant commissioner with the Minnesota Department of Education. That's especially critical this year, she said, when learning has been so disrupted by the COVID-19 pandemic.
Last spring, when the pandemic forced schools into distance learning, the federal government waived required standardized testing. This year, however, the Biden administration is once again mandating the tests, though states have additional flexibility.
The Minnesota Department of Education is considering applying for a federal accountability waiver, which, if granted, would mean that MCA results would not be used as a part of the equation to identify low-performing schools.
The state is also extending the timeline for testing, allowing schools to administer the tests until May 21.
The extra flexibility does not include remote options, however. The state Department of Education said it would be challenging to securely administer a remote test and results from in-person and remote tests couldn't be combined for a districtwide picture of student performance.
That means students in distance learning will still be expected to take the test inside a school building — or opt out altogether — and schools must provide transportation and meals for those days.
Pandemic effect on data
Even before the pandemic, a growing number of Minnesota students were choosing to sit out the MCAs, due in part to parent concerns about the overtesting of students.
"Communication with families is more important than it ever has been with testing," said Michelle DeMers, the assessment coordinator for the Rosemount-Apple Valley-Eagan school district. The district has focused on asking parents about how this year has gone, particularly those with children in distance learning, and making sure information about the tests is available in multiple languages.
Leaders in Minneapolis schools are also focused on making sure parents understand the options, said Eric Moore, the district's senior accountability, research and equity officer. At a school board meeting in February, Moore said about 50% of families of English language learners in the district opted out of the Access test, which is designed to measure progress toward state standards for English language development.
In the Rosemount-Apple Valley-Eagan district, however, most families of English language learners who were enrolled in distance learning decided to bring their child to school for the Access test, DeMers said. She said that could be an indication of what distance learning families will decide for the MCA tests, though she expects more students to refuse the test compared with a pre-pandemic year.
In the South Washington County school district, fewer than 10% of the 2,800 students who've chosen to remain in distance learning plan to return to a school building to take the MCAs, said John Lindner, the district's director of research, evaluation and assessment.
"Because we have such a large number of students in distance learning, we really don't plan to use the MCA results for much this year because we would be missing so much data," Lindner said. Results won't be used for any high-stakes purpose, but rather as a broad look at how students are meeting grade-level requirements, he said.
About one-third of elementary and middle-school families who remained in distance learning in Wayzata schools have said they will opt their students out of the MCAs for COVID-19 related reasons, said Stacey Lackner, the director of research and evaluation for Wayzata schools.
That district has decided not to use the results for evaluating individual schools because of the learning model variations among students.
"The amount of live, in-person instruction differs between students even within the same school," Lackner said. But the results can show students and their parents the degree to which they learned grade-level standards, she said.
"We all understand that this is a different year and we need to look at our data differently," Lackner said. "That's actually an opportunity for us to say: 'How are we using the state test results and how should we be looking at them, even if we weren't in a pandemic?' "
Identifying student needs
Burnham, with the Minnesota Department of Education, said that the state expects the data to be affected by the number of students who opt out of the test. However, she said, any information about student learning "is absolutely critical in a year where we know the educational experience has been disrupted."
Leaders of Education Minnesota, the statewide teachers union, oppose the test and say it takes away valuable in-person instruction time. President Denise Specht said while she supports the state pursuing the accountability waiver, the tests still add stress for students and teachers.
"We should be spending this time building relationships with students and figuring out what their needs are from a social, emotional and academic level," Specht said. "The MCAs just aren't meant to do that."
Paula Cole, the executive director of the nonprofit Educators for Excellence, said the discussion around standardized testing highlights the need for assessments that measure individual student growth. She said the MCAs will provide helpful data points for schools, "but we will need more than that to understand what a kid needs."
Many districts are planning to use other assessments and surveys to better understand the needs of their students and the learning experience over the past year.
"Would it have been easier for all of us to have another waiver and not do the [MCAs] this year? Of course," DeMers said. "It's a lot of work for everybody, but this is what we were told we needed to do."
Mara Klecker • 612-673-4440