Last week, President Obama signed the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), a reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, ushering in many changes to federal education regulations, funding and accountability. One thing that did not change is that federal law still requires states to administer standards-based assessments to all students in reading and math every year in grades 3-8 and once in high school. I applaud our federal policymakers for stressing the importance of these assessments by preserving them in law. And I encourage our Minnesota leaders to remember that such tests aren't just required by federal law, they're also critical to achieving educational equity.
Data from standards-based, annual assessments help us know which kids are growing annually, which are on track and which need additional support. If we're truly going to help all Minnesota kids succeed, we need this data to guide our efforts and priorities. That's why, as Minnesota policymakers and stakeholders come together to reduce testing in schools (a goal I support) I hope we can all keep a few things in mind to ensure that we test less but better, maintaining the data we need—and the data federal law still requires—to truly help all students thrive:
1. We need tests that align to the state standards. The Minnesota Comprehensive Assessment is the only annual test aligned to our state standards and the best indicator of whether students are not only proficient in math and reading, but are also college-ready. But there has been a lot of talk about the possibility of replacing the MCA with the ACT for high school students. I have strong reservations around that proposal. First, the ACT does not accurately measure kids’ proficiency in math or reading. In fact, according to the ACT, one in four kids who earn a passing score on the ACT do not test into college-level courses. By comparison, 90 percent of those who score proficient on the MCA test into college-level math courses.
Not only does the ACT not measure high school proficiency or college-readiness, kids of color are less likely to pass the test. For example, only 5 percent of Black kids who take the ACT pass the four test subject areas, which serves as a further barrier to a postsecondary education. Instead of asking how we can place more importance on the ACT, we should ask how we can make sure all of our kids are meeting basic proficiency goals when benchmarked to state standards.
2. Tests must measure growth. Understanding how many kids are proficient in reading, math and science is important. It's also important to understand how kids are growing, or not growing, from year to year. If we don’t test in the same subject area annually, we will not fully nor objectively understand how well kids are progressing. Simply put, the idea of “grade span testing” and other approaches that don’t require annual assessments wouldn't just be illegal, they also wouldn't provide the growth data we need.
3. We must improve the MCA. We can do this by establishing cut scores that not only tell us if a student is proficient in reading or math, but also if they are ready for college. This is already done in several states, including my home state of Washington, and I simply don’t understand why we can’t also create clear and transparent cut scores for our Minnesota students.
The MCA must also provide real time feedback for teachers early in the year and near the end of the year to provide useful data for teachers and schools. The feedback should also include specifics on where kids need the most attention and how teachers can modify their lesson plans to address the needs of their kids. These changes would not only improve how we test, but would eliminate the need for other tests such as the Accuplacer, NWEA, ACT and many others.
4. We need to disaggregate data. Right now, our data cannot tell us how, for example, Somali kids, Hmong kids, Vietnamese kids, or homeless and highly mobile kids are doing. In our efforts to capture and use helpful data, we must disaggregate testing and graduation data so we can fully understand where to invest more equitably in our efforts to improve education.
Assessments like the MCA and their immediate results are not the goal. They are, however, important tools to measure the progress of students, schools and educators. When testing data show that certain groups of kids are falling behind, we are able to craft solutions to target support, resources and programming. Data can also show who and what are moving the needle for kids, allowing us to support, expand and replicate what works well.
Efforts to build a strong public education system requires we first measure our progress and understand our goals. Annual, standards-based tests like the MCA, which Congress and President Obama rightfully champion, provide us with that opportunity. Let's get to it.