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by Ricardo Lopez in the Star Tribune on Thursday, October 29, 2015

Gov. Mark Dayton is renewing his push to dramatically scale back the amount of time students spend taking tests after President Obama announced that he wants to cap standardized exams at 2 percent of annual class time.

“I’ve been urging testing reduction for my entire two terms, so I’m glad to see Minnesota is making some progress, and I assume the president’s support will lend credence to that effort,” Dayton said Wednesday. “I’m glad that [the president] recognized the federal government’s a culprit in testing.”

Dayton and some legislators of both parties have pressed to reduce the amount of time students spend taking assessment tests, but the effort has faced stiff resistance from education groups that view testing as essential to measuring student achievement and teacher skills. The battle over testing has emerged as one of the most divisive education issues nationally and in Minnesota.

But the state’s effort to reduce testing also collided with federal mandates. The U.S. Department of Education’s yearslong push for more data-driven accountability measures began under former President George W. Bush and continues in the battle over Common Core standards.

In their recent announcement expressing interest in less testing, federal education officials acknowledged their role in the proliferation of tests. But agency officials argued that annual statewide assessments, such as the Minnesota Comprehensive Assessments (MCA), remain “essential.”

Minnesota legislators last spring adopted a cap on the amount of time students spend on locally administered exams, but it did not include the MCAs and other tests.

Between pre-K and 12th grade, students take on average 112 standardized exams, according to a study of the nation’s 66 largest school districts by the Council of the Great City Schools. It said testing amounts to 2.3 percent of classroom time for the average eighth-grader. What is not known is how much class time students spend preparing for the mandatory exams.

Dayton, a former schoolteacher in New York City, said his “No. 1 priority is to instill in students the love of learning.” He added that it creates unnecessary anxiety for students and teachers to perform well on high-stakes tests, which are frequently tied to teacher evaluations and school funding.

“To want to learn, to love to learn and to feel good about themselves — that’s going to be far more determinative of their progress in school and their teacher’s success than making them afraid and feeling bad about themselves because they’re so overtested,” he said.

Dayton last March proposed eliminating a third of required tests, including the MCAs, for certain grades and subjects. But that effort stalled over concerns that it would not meet federal requirements. A proposal by the administration to limit testing to 2 percent of classroom instruction time also failed.

Dayton said that in previous conversations with outgoing U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan, “he’s been tremendously supportive of everything we’ve done in Minnesota, but [reducing mandated tests] was one in which we had to respectfully disagree with each other.”

Over the weekend, the Obama administration said it would work with states to reduce some tests, saying it would provide clearer guidance early next year, while also acknowledging its role in the proliferation of standardized tests that are frequently tied to funding decisions and teacher evaluations.

Other supporters

Minnesota Education Commissioner Brenda Cassellius said that her department would start working on a plan for testing reductions and that it likely would resemble Dayton’s proposal last spring that called for the elimination of the MCA math tests in third and fourth grade, leaving in place reading assessments. It called for the elimination of the MCA reading tests in sixth and seventh grade, focusing instead on math.

Cassellius said Minnesota should instill strong early literacy skills in students, arguing that they are important for later success with math.

“We need a stronger focus on early literacy, so it’s really, really important that we are testing our students each year in the early grades [in reading],” Cassellius said. “And then at middle school … be able to really use all of those early literacy skills to better think about problem-solving with mathematics.”

Education Minnesota, the state’s teachers union representing more than 70,000 educators, has proposed what it calls grade-span testing for the MCAs, which would be administered once in elementary, once in middle school and once in high school, according to a report presented to the Senate Education Committee this week.

The MCA tests are currently administered every year, beginning in third grade and ending in eighth grade, taking up around 1 percent of classroom time. High school students take the MCAs a handful of times in reading, math and science. Local testing requirements, however, add to a student’s testing load, but it’s unclear by how much because districts aren’t required to report that information to the state.

Education Minnesota proposed in its report limiting the MCAs to fifth and eighth grade, and just once in high school.

Union President Denise Specht called the report a starting point. “When we suggest grade-span testing, we don’t have particular grades in mind,” she said, adding that “it’s up to Minnesota to decide what grade-span looks like.”

State Sen. Chuck Wiger, DFL-Maplewood, Education Committee chairman, said that he supports having fewer tests and that he was swayed by some of the points made in Education Minnesota’s report. He said he planned to hold more hearings on the topic.

Tests needed for tracking

Meanwhile, opponents — including the Minnesota Business Partnership and MinnCAN, an education reform group — have cautioned against eliminating some tests they say are critical to tracking students’ academic process over time.

“You can’t improve what you don’t know or measure,” said Jim Bartholomew, education policy director for the partnership. “The less information you have, the less you can do on a thoughtful and strategic basis. Given the gaps we have, that we would want less independent information on how kids are doing is just nuts.”

Rep. Jenifer Loon, R-Eden Prairie, Education Finance Committee chairwoman, said Minnesota’s required testing is appropriate and important to tracking the progress of minority students and the achievement gap that exists between their white counterparts.

“If we were to reduce testing, some of the information that we know about this gap and are able to identify would perhaps be lessened,” Loon said.


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