As a parent and a teacher, I’ve been frustrated to read recent results from two seemingly contradictory polls, one which indicates that parents support standardized testing, and the other which suggests that parents want to completely get rid of such assessments. Both polls present a black and white premise that greatly oversimplifies a complicated issue.

My guess is that no parent likes testing. I’ve certainly grappled with how to best advocate for efficient and prudent use of assessments for my kids, and I strongly believe that schools need to test less, and be smarter about the tests they are using. And until they do, I’ve considered opting my kids out of the statewide Minnesota Comprehensive Assessments all together.

But I haven’t opted my kids out of the MCAs. Because, as Beth Hawkins recently wrote, the purpose of these assessments is too important: they measure not only whether students are meeting the academic standards we’ve set for them, but also how we’re closing (or not closing) achievement gaps for low-income students and students of color. If we don’t like what the MCAs tell us, then we need to up our game and do better for our kids—not sweep disappointing data under the rug.

Of course, what we don’t want is schools that value testing above all else. This can create fear, incentivize cheating and crowd out curriculum with test-taking skill-drilling. When we value tests more than the student success they’re designed to measure, we stifle school innovation, encourage top-down leadership and prevent schools from achieving their mission and vision. A culture of testing sorts and labels schools, teachers and students without regard to the many needs of children.

But it doesn’t have to be this way. As many Minnesota schools are already proving, we can instead build a culture of excellence, in which standardized tests are just one tool in the toolbox to helping all kids succeed, on tests and beyond.

To build a culture of excellence in our schools, and to make the most of—not scrap—the MCAs, I propose we:

  • Reform state tests so that they give teachers immediate data that they can use to tailor instruction and communicate progress to families.
  • Score each pupil on both proficiency and growth.
  • Analyze learning and opportunity gaps with a more holistic approach. Let’s look at MCA data, classroom assessments and any additional data that can help us understand our impact—from who has access to rigorous coursework, to who is being suspended from school. Effective teachers already use more than one data point to inform their work.
  • Evaluate teachers on multiple measures, including state test scores, value-added measures, student surveys and classroom observations. Thankfully, Minnesota’s new, innovative statewide teacher evaluation system—which rolls out fully this year—does just that.
  • Stop over-testing our kids. Not all students should take every test at a school's disposal. Some students do not need a 1:1 diagnostic assessment if they are proficient on state tests. Some students do not need a norm-referenced growth assessment three times a year if they are already on track to make a full year of growth.
  • Empower teachers to use data effectively. With 14 years in the classroom, I’ve come to realize that data-driven decision-making can have significant and positive impacts on my students’ learning. Let’s increase data literacy instruction in teacher preparation programs, and also provide job-embedded professional development opportunities for educators to learn how to best use data to drive their instruction.

Working towards a culture of excellence does not mean we need to get rid of standardized tests like the MCAs. Quite the opposite, to pursue excellence for all kids and schools, we must confront what these tests tell us.

Creating a culture of excellence in schools means educators teaching the state standards within a rich and engaging curriculum; schools operating strategically and transparently in how they utilize assessments and achievement data; and celebrating and sharing great results.

I know that Minnesota—and our tests—can do better by our kids.

Holly Kragthorpe teaches seventh-graders at Ramsey Middle School in Minneapolis, where she is a union steward for Minneapolis Federation of Teachers, a school captain for Educators 4 Excellence, and a teacher blogging fellow and teacher policy fellow for MinnCAN.


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