Daniel Sellers was MinnCAN’s executive director from 2012-2016.

Minnesotans have recently seen a spate of news stories and commentary on student testing, including five full paragraphs on the topic in Gov. Dayton’s State of the State address. Student testing also appeared last week in a front-page story in the Star Tribune and on today’s “Friday Roundtable” on MPR’s “The Daily Circuit.”

At MinnCAN, we think a lot about testing, why it’s important and how it can help advance educational excellence and great schools for all our kids.

We agree with Gov. Dayton, Education Commissioner Cassellius and many others who have recently spoken up on this issue: Minnesota should get rid of redundant and onerous tests that don’t serve the interests of students or teachers.

At the same time, we strongly caution against eliminating or cutting back the Minnesota Comprehensive Assessments. The MCAs serve as a consistent, objective instrument for teachers, parents and the state, so we can know whether students have grown and met state standards. These assessments also help us track progress made in closing our notorious achievement and opportunity gaps over time.

One thing we learned during our fall 2013 ‘Road to Success’ statewide tour is that many of Minnesota’s most successful schools are analyzing MCA test data to better inform instruction, and that increasing numbers of parents and teachers are seeking greater data transparency so they can better understand their students’ performance and growth.

At their best, relevant and effective assessments can offer some of the strongest evidence on how teachers, schools and districts are preparing students for successful futures. Last month, when we visited Northside Elementary in St. James, we learned that setting measurable goals for student performance on the MCAs has been a driving factor in the school’s turnaround success. 

And last fall, teachers at Churchill Elementary in Cloquet told us that they use MCA data to determine intervention and enrichment opportunities, and to ensure they’re individualizing instruction and meeting the needs of all students.

At their worst, assessments—if not used to inform classroom instruction or provide immediate feedback on student progress to kids, parents and teachers—can be a waste of time and resources.

Opponents of testing say that parents can best learn about their student’s academic progress by speaking with teachers, because teachers are the best evaluators of learning.

We agree that building a relationship with your child’s teacher is one of the best things you can do to support your student’s academic success. However, effective, state-led tests that are written by teachers and accurately reflect students’ proficiency and growth offer critical, objective information that a lone teacher cannot, such as how your student compares to their peers across the district and across the state. It can also help a parent compare schools and districts to identify the best learning environment for their child. 

Additionally, whether we’re comfortable admitting it our not, there is a subjective nature to a teacher’s evaluation of student performance. My experience as a classroom teacher taught me that biases based on a student’s race, income or behavior can skew a teacher’s perception of a student’s academic achievement and potential. An ‘A’ in one class could be a ‘C’ in the class next door, for example, and such subjectivity doesn’t give parents, teachers and the state accurate information in how Minnesota kids are doing.

In his State of the State address, Gov. Dayton called for a Minnesota Department of Education analysis of testing—similar to the 2012 report from the department’s Assessment and Accountability Working Group, which was the basis for many testing changes enacted just last year.

We hope that any new analysis will help teachers, parents, policymakers and our community at large further identify which tests are most valuable for Minnesota kids. However, as Commissioner Cassellius herself said last fall: “We need to stop moving the goal posts.” For all the complaints that exist over testing, what we’ve heard from teachers, parents and students is that what frustrates them most are constantly changing testing requirements. 

Getting rid of district- or school-mandated tests that don’t serve a purpose is a good thing, and we’ll support the governor and department in their work to do just that. But eliminating or reducing the MCAs or tests that help teachers and students would significantly—and, we think, negatively—move the proverbial goal posts. 

Let’s test less, but better. Let’s keep the assessments we need, and look to high-performing schools for ideas on how to best leverage their results to increase student achievement.

Our recommendations for improving—and better using—tests include:

  • Get MCA test results back more quickly: Students, parents and teachers shouldn’t have to wait months to find out which standards they’ve met and where there’s room for improvement.
  • Ensure test results are transparent and understandable: MCA results should be available and easy for parents to decipher, even across language and cultural barriers.
  • Provide teachers and schools with resources to analyze MCA data to better inform instruction.
  • Measure growth and proficiency: MCA tests should capture how much a student has learned throughout the year and indicate whether or not the student has met or exceeded state standards.

What ideas do you have for improving testing in our schools? We’d love to hear your feedback in the comments section below.


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