Changing course

Would fewer tests worsen Minnesota’s dismal achievement gap?

Gov. Mark Dayton and the Education Minnesota teachers’ union are calling for cuts in K-12 classrooms, but spending isn’t the issue. Rather, the target is standardized testing, and powerful proponents plan to renew their push in the 2016 Minnesota Legislature.

“If you get that chance, please take it,” Annette Walen, an Osseo Area Schools teacher, said recently on behalf of Education Minnesota during a hearing of the Minnesota Senate Education Committee. “Please break this wheel of test prep, followed by testing, followed by more test prep, followed by more testing.”

But some charter schools and other critics warn the move away from statewide annual assessments could impede academic progress for minority and low-income students, exacerbating one of the nation’s worst achievement gaps.

Recent national report card results, for example, show reading scores for black fourth-graders in Minnesota averaged 37 points lower than those of white students. Latino fourth- graders averaged 33 points lower on reading scores, as compared to white classmates.

Educators use statewide tests to evaluate and compare student results among schools, groups and programs, allowing them to identify things that do and don’t work.

“This move is particularly harmful to kids of color and underserved kids who can’t afford to go several years without knowing whether or not they’re on track,” said Daniel Sellers, executive director of MinnCan, an education reform advocacy group. “We know that, in particular, when underserved students fall behind it’s much, much harder to catch them up.”

Legislators this year passed limits on the amount of time students are allotted for district exams — ten hours for grades one through six and 11 hours for grades seven through 12, per year.

“I shouldn’t use the word testing, because our administrators like to look at this as assessment of the children,” Gary Amoroso, Minnesota Association of School Administrators executive director, told legislators. “Assessments to help inform instruction, to work with our parents, to work with staff.”

But Dayton wants to shrink the overall number of tests by one-third, starting with the Minnesota Comprehensive Assessments statewide tests tied to federal No Child Left Behind requirements. Minnesota students take annual MCA math and reading tests from third through eighth grade, plus once in high school. They take MCA science tests in fifth and eighth grades, as well as once in high school.

“Testing has always been a critical part of the teaching and learning process, but over-testing and constant test preparation are not strategies to improve student outcomes or close achievement gaps,” states a Minnesota Department of Education legislative overview.

MDE Commissioner Brenda Cassellius was told to draw up a 2016 legislative lesson plan, which is expected to press for the end of statewide math tests in grades three and four, along with statewide reading tests in grades six and seven.

“What we don’t know yet is what exactly it will look like,” MDE communications director Josh Collins said. “Are they going to build on what was proposed before? Has the atmosphere changed? Will there be more of an appetite for it, especially since the feds have started to talk as if they may be supportive of reduced testing? I think these things are unknown still.”

Said Sellers: “Why is it, when everybody is upset about too much testing, the teachers’ union, and the governor at their request, have decided to eliminate only this test, the one test that actually allows us to understand how kids are doing?”

Global Academy, a charter school in which 92 percent of students qualify for free and reduced lunches, welcomes the accountability. The 430 students in kindergarten through eighth grade at the Columbia Heights school consistently rank near the top of Twin Cities schools as it relates to closing the achievement gap.

“I don’t necessarily think there’s over-testing going on,” said Helen Fisk, Global Academy director. “I think reading and math are pretty basic in wanting to know how your kid’s doing. It’s not unreasonable to give a standardized test in those areas as often as we do. I don’t have a problem with that.”

An Education Minnesota study recommends so-called “grade span” testing, statewide assessments at the end of elementary and middle schools.

“The use of fewer, better tests can improve the quality of information produced by that system-level testing and reduce some of the unintended consequences of the current system on curriculum and instructional time,” according to the union testing report.