A south Minneapolis high school is raising Minnesota’s profile in a growing national backlash against standardized testing.

Encouraged by teachers and with parent approval, more than 100 of 140 students in South High’s ninth-grade open program skipped last fall’s MAP test, which measures academic progress. And this spring, at least 250 older students opted out of the state-required MCA, which tests comprehension.

Opt-outs by parents are allowed by federal law, but they’re also part of a larger, often teacher-led national rebellion against standardizing the measurement of student knowledge. Those teachers say such tests are driven by would-be education reformers from outside their profession but don’t help student learning.

“In our professional opinions, these tests interfere with real learning and are poor measures of student growth,” wrote the four ninth-grade open teachers who last fall informed parents of their right to opt out of the MAP test at South.

The movement has been scattered across the country. In Seattle, teachers at one high school led a MAP boycott in 2013 that spread beyond their school. In recent contract bargaining, the St. Paul teachers union won a commitment to reduce time spent preparing for tests and taking them. The Minneapolis union has taken no position on opt-outs.

The movement often blossoms from a single school within a state, accompanied by isolated examples at other schools, according to Robert Schaeffer, spokesman for FairTest, which advocates nationally for a nonstandardized student evaluation. There’s probably a logic in the Minnesota movement erupting in South’s open-style magnet program, he said.

“It makes sense that parents that chose that type of educational setting for their students, where there’s rich and holistic assessment, would resist narrow standardized testing,” he said.

Barton open school, which feeds South and several other high schools, also had about 50 opt-outs. So did Southwest, but Washburn had only a handful. Ditto for St. Paul schools, with only 14 opt-outs from the MCA this spring, and Anoka-Hennepin, which had only one opt-out. Some districts in central Minnesota also had a few students opt out.

Teachers have pushed back against standardized testing after it mushroomed under the accountability-driven federal No Child Left Behind law in 2002. That’s when testing began to be used to rank schools, and it’s now part of teacher evaluations. Teachers also say that some standardized tests give them little useful information they don’t already have from careful observation of students, and that allowing students to show their knowledge in other than a timed, limited-option test helps them to internalize new concepts far better than memorizing for a test.

In defense of testing

Eric Moore, the Minneapolis district’s research and assessment director, said standardized tests are essential for telling educators whether they’re making progress on the achievement gap. He said they contribute valuable data for evaluating district programs, leading to more informed decisions. Increasingly computerized administration of tests is allowing teachers and students more immediate feedback on where a student is strong or weak, Moore said.

Speaking as a parent, he added: “I’d like to know how my student is doing compared to other students in the school, to other students in the state, and to other students across the country. Those are data points I use to measure my child’s progress, along with how much they’re engaged in school, how much they enjoy school, how well they’re reading.”

Sarah Lahm was one of the first parents in the district to opt her children at Barton and Washburn out of such testing. She said the factor that crystallized her thinking was when she asked her children about testing. Her oldest daughter, now a ninth-grader, disliked the attention that testing took from projects in which she took a greater interest, and internalized the message from a teacher that performance could affect which classes she could take.

Even an opt-out movement that so far has exempted just over 1 percent of Minneapolis students is making waves. For example, Moore plans to analyze whether opt-outs are skewing tests results for South or Barton. Now that the MCAs can be used to measure a student’s year-over-year growth, Moore said the district will also re-evaluate whether to continue using the MAP test (Measures of Academic Progress), which most often was used as a gauge of fall-to-spring growth. A district-union task force is looking at reducing testing.

Teachers: A better way

At South, teachers who rebel against the MCA and MAP argue that an effective teacher assesses whether students have learned a skill through both formal and informal techniques. The four South teachers who sent the initial opt-out option to parents are Michelle Ockman, English; Robert Panning-Miller, social studies; Melinda Bennett, science; and Stephanie Woldum, math.

For example, in Ockman’s ninth-grade world literature class at South, students were recently debating whether flowery or terse description is the best way to tell a story like Richard Kim’s fictionalized account of the Japanese occupation of Korea. Ockman asked the students why Kim might have spent so much time describing the twilight.

Nadine Stodolka mustered a comparison between the red disk of the setting sun and the Japanese flag, her insight drawing exclamations from her classmates.

A class discussion that harvests examples is one way that Ockman determines how deeply her students reflect on what they’ve read. She also uses journals in which students note parts of the text that speak to them and why.

Panning-Miller cites the tendency of standardized testing to reduce complex questions to a single right answer, making it harder for students to synthesize conflicting evidence in a world of uncertainty.

The open teachers say other teachers are interested in the opt-out movement and that repercussions have been slight. “I was urged to be more of a team player,” Panning-Miller said, recounting a conversation with a South administrator. Across Minneapolis, 240 students have opted out of the MAP test, while 408 aren’t taking this spring’s MCAs.

Testing opponents argue that the focus on testing has narrowed school curriculum to tested subjects, that it has focused districts on scripted instruction that undercuts more authentic learning that students absorb more deeply, and that the sheer volume of tests has cut into learning time.

But it’s a surprise to many that parents have the right to opt their children out, which they can do without repercussion. MCA and MAP are not a graduation requirement.

That includes school administrators, according to Shannon Essler-Petty, an assistant professor of education at College of St. Benedict/St. John’s University, who has spoken to superintendents on the issue. She helps train teachers, and said they know without standardized tests what skills individual students have mastered.

“They know those kiddos better than anyone else,” she said.


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