For some Minnesota parents, standardized testing has reached its limits
Mila Koumpilova, Pioneer Press, June 29, 2013 – Sarah Lahm had a “revelation” this spring, courtesy of teachers and other parents at Clara Barton Open School in Minneapolis: She could opt her children out of the state’s standardized tests.
Lahm followed a high-profile test boycott in Seattle, read up on research and asked her kids for their take on testing. She then let her school know her children would skip the test next year.
“I felt there is a need to pause and ask a lot of questions,” she said.
For years, complaints about the hold of testing on public education in the No Child Left Behind Act era have grown louder. Now, across the country and here in the Twin Cities, some critics are taking action.
In contract negotiations, the teachers unions in St. Paul and Minneapolis have called on their districts to scale back standardized tests. The Minneapolis Federation of Teachers and a statewide parent advocacy group have separately weighed campaigns to enlist parents to opt out of them. A small number of parents such as Lahm are already letting their children sit out the exams.
The unprecedented pushback nationwide comes amid concerns about the time testing takes away from instruction, its expense and its role in sizing up teacher performance.
Even as they agree that districts tend to test excessively, some Minnesota advocates and legislators are alarmed by the pushback. The tests are helping steer instruction based on solid data, supporters say; they have shone a stark spotlight on achievement disparities between low-income, minority students and their peers.
“Eliminating the state tests removes a level of accountability that parents and the community have come to expect,” said Daniel Sellers, executive director of the education advocacy nonprofit MinnCAN.
To Marcus Moten, a fourth-grade teacher at St. Paul’s Johnson Elementary, assessing students’ skills at the start of the school year and their progress later is essential. But he says the amount of assessing required of him pulls his students away from learning for frequent, disruptive stretches.
There are the Minnesota Comprehensive Assessments, or MCAs, the mandatory state tests in reading, math and science. Now that St. Paul administers the math test online, students also take a practice test to help the school prepare for the real thing. Even under a waiver Minnesota secured from penalties under No Child Left Behind, the MCA scores remain a highly visible, high-stakes metric.
There are the Measures of Academic Progress, or MAP, the math and reading tests St. Paul schools administer three times a year. Of roughly 540 school districts and charter schools in Minnesota, 470 now offer the tests, according to their maker, the nonprofit Northwest Evaluation Association. MAP yields the instant, pupil-by-pupil feedback the paper-and-pencil MCAs didn’t. As a relatively reliable predictor of MCA scores, the exams also work as prep for the state tests.
The MAP helps highlight “where the gaps in learning are so I can fill them in,” Moten says. But three times a year? That strikes him as overkill.
Three times a year, Moten also has to sit each of his students for a one-on-one reading assessment. The test can dominate reading class for up to three weeks at a time: “That means the rest of the students aren’t getting direct instruction,” Moten said.
As contract negotiations ramp up in St. Paul, the teachers union has called on the district to pull out of the MCAs — an unprecedented proposal the district said will get it in hot water with the state. The St. Paul Federation of Teachers also is asking the district to give educators more leeway in designing their own assessments.
Mary Cathryn Ricker, the federation’s president, says the pressure to perform on the MCAs has spawned more testing and narrower, more scripted curricula.
During contract negotiations in Minneapolis, the union urged the district to reduce the number of standardized tests and embrace wider use of teacher-created, “authentic” assessments.
Lynn Nordgren, the union leader, says those could be writing and research projects, experiments or oral presentations that challenge students to apply their knowledge and solve problems creatively. Bubble tests are like the written driver’s exam, she says — necessary, but nothing like sitting behind the wheel.
“We’re trying to push up against the system to say, ‘What’s a deeper, richer way to build on the students’ strengths?’ ” Nordgren said.
In the past year, opponents of testing have rallied to action across the country. In Seattle, teachers boycotted the MAP test, and some families followed suit: About 600 students sat out the test. The 45,000-student district recently announced that its high schools would not have to give the MAP next year, handing educators a partial victory.
In Chicago, teachers and parents started a petition calling on the district to test less often. In Texas, lawmakers scaled back the state’s testing program. Across the country, pockets of parent resistance have led commentators to speak of a growing Opt-Out Movement.
In Minnesota, the DFL-led Legislature scrapped the GRAD tests students had to pass to graduate amid protest from Republican colleagues. The state’s education commissioner, Brenda Cassellius, has been outspoken about her distaste for high-stakes tests and the need to overhaul the MCAs.
In numerous states, debates have raged about whether and how test scores should factor into teacher evaluations. There, some testing supporters have charged that job security concerns are driving the pushback against tests — a charge educators dismiss.
Minneapolis uses MCA and MAP results to calculate value-added scores, an attempt to gauge an educator’s ability to boost student learning regardless of demographics that has spurred intense controversy nationally. The district says these scores will become one of several factors in teacher evaluations, mandatory for all Minnesota educators in 2014.
The statewide teachers union and local union leaders such as Julie Blaha in the Anoka-Hennepin district are watching the St. Paul and Minneapolis proposals closely.
“I think we all agree we have to get a handle on this testing mania out there,” Blaha said. “If testing is getting in the way of learning, we have to take action.”
With input from teachers and principals, Anoka-Hennepin decided to reduce the number of times elementary schools administer the MAP from twice to once a year next fall, said Associate Superintendent Mary Wolverton. The district also is piloting a new University of Minnesota assessment called FAST, which takes 20 minutes — the MAP takes an hour or so.
St. Paul will do away with MAP in grades 3 through 5, but it will require elementary schools to administer the practice math MCAs twice — all in all, “a modest reduction” in testing time, said Chief Academic Officer Matt Mohs. These days, districts can give practice MCAs early in the school year and get instant, detailed results — even as concerns about computer access and online glitches persist statewide.
“While we still see standardized tests as an important tool,” Mohs said, “we did want to scale back their presence in some grades.”
WHAT’S THE ANSWER?
Earlier this summer, Lahm, the Minneapolis mom, hosted a meeting for about a dozen district parents who share an unease about testing. They voiced concerns about how a preoccupation with high-stakes tests has narrowed curricula and muddled public education priorities.
“When I hear teachers saying that because of these tests, they don’t have enough time to teach, I take note,” said Jonathan Scott, who pulled his son out of spring MAP testing at Southwest High School and addressed the school board on the issue.
For Lahm, a freelance writer with a background in higher education, the testimony of her kids was powerful. Her eighth-grade daughter spoke of her frustration when the MCA testing window interrupted a build-your-own-rocket science project for two weeks. In the seventh grade, the girl landed in a math work group based on what Lahm calls a “blip in her normal performance” on the sixth-grade MCAs. She’s questioned the test’s value since.
Meanwhile, said parent Deborah Savran, “I trust the feedback my son’s teachers give me about how he is doing at school.”
Few parents opt out of standardized testing in Minneapolis and statewide. In the 2011-12 school year, when 415,870 students sat for the reading MCA, only 405 opted out, with 268 families citing medical reasons. In Minneapolis this past year, said Eric Moore, the district’s assessment director, about 20 parents had students sit out the test.
“They certainly have that option, and we support that,” said Moore, adding that parents who opt out are missing out on helpful information about how their kids perform.
Mary Cecconi, executive director of Parents United for Public Schools, says some parents who are aware of the option worry that exercising it would hurt their school’s standing with the state; they might face “subtle persuasion” by school officials. Many are concerned about the cost of testing.
The state has a three year, $61 million contract for its online assessments; St. Paul’s contract for MAP testing last year was worth $293,000.
The nonprofit is considering an opt-out campaign next school year, but only if it can trigger a broad discussion about approaches to testing students that yield more helpful feedback for teachers and parents.
“We’re not going to say, ‘Parents, get out of these tests,’ unless we can hand them something richer,” Cecconi said.
The Minneapolis union has discussed a Seattle-style test boycott, but it has no plans to undertake it for now, Nordgren said.
Sellers, of MinnCAN, says concerns about excessive testing and teaching to the test resonate with him. Districts should scale back, he said.
But he remains convinced of the need for a statewide accountability tool that sheds light on how schools stack up, especially when it comes to serving students of color and limited means. The state’s MCA results have brought unprecedented awareness of the state’s achievement gap, one of the widest in the country. They have spurred educators and advocates to action, bringing modest but promising gains.
“The exams are telling us a story we don’t like,” Sellers said. “Instead of facing it head-on, the Department of Education and teachers unions are saying, ‘Let’s do away with the information that’s making us uncomfortable.’ ”
State Rep. Sondra Erickson, R-Princeton, who strongly opposed doing away with the GRAD, says she remains a believer in the MCAs. With the move toward online tests, long-standing complaints about belated, overly general results are becoming moot, she said.
“We’re making progress with the Minnesota Comprehensive Assessment,” said Erickson, a former teacher. “I believe we need to stay the course.”