by Christopher Magan in the Pioneer Press, Grand Forks Herald on Wednesday, March 23, 2016
The tests Minnesota students take to measure their academic proficiency and that are used to hold schools and teachers accountable are back under the microscope at the Legislature.
The renewed attention comes after Congress approved in December an eight-year overdue rewrite of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, or ESEA, which has provided funding for and ensured equitable public schools for half a century.
The Every Student Succeeds Act signed by President Barack Obama is the latest iteration of ESEA, replacing the controversial No Child Left Behind Law enacted under President George W. Bush in 2002.
The updated law promises to give states more control over student testing and how schools and teachers are held accountable. Yet, Minnesota lawmakers might be moving prematurely in considering any major testing changes: The U.S. Department of Education is not expected to tell state leaders what new control they’ll have over testing until summer.
“We feel like now is a good time to really get stakeholder feedback and input,” said Kevin McHenry, state assistant education commissioner. “Where the rubber meets the road is when we get those guidelines from the federal government.”
Nevertheless, policy proposals aimed at making tests more transparent and the data they collect easier to understand appear to have strong bipartisan support at the Capitol.
PUSH FOR TRANSPARENCY
After repeated problems with online versions of the Minnesota Comprehensive Assessments, or MCAs, educators and lawmakers want to ensure the test results are accurate and test providers are held accountable for glitches.
They also want parents to have more information about when and how often their children are tested. State and federal laws require annual MCAs in math, reading and science, and most districts also administer other exams to measure academic progress.
“We want to bring transparency to the testing process,” said Denise Specht, president of Education Minnesota, the state teachers union. “I believe parents and teachers should get specific information about how a student is doing.”
Proposals backed by educators and lawmakers also would make it easier for teachers to report problems with online tests. And the proposals would deliver better information about how students fared by detailing the questions they answered.
“We believe this is an important step to make sure testing is working for students, first and foremost, because that really is the point,” said Sen. Susan Kent, DFL-Woodbury, the chief sponsor of several testing bills discussed this month.
However, making test questions public every year is problematic for the Minnesota Department of Education. Developing the questions is a cumbersome and costly process, and once they are made public, they cannot be reused.
McHenry said teachers already have the tools needed to better understand how their students performed on the MCAs. The Education Department is working to help school leaders make better use those tools.
Jim Bartholomew, education policy director for the advocacy group Minnesota Business Partnership, has long supported annual proficiency testing. He favors giving parents, students and teachers a better understanding of why proficiency tests are important and of their results.
“If you are going to test, you need to give people back results that improve instruction,” Bartholomew said. “If there is a gap, we should be working to close it. The higher the quality of information the better.”
PROTECTING STUDENT PRIVACY
Lawmaker also have offered several proposals aimed at better protecting the data created when students take tests online. Overall, educators and lawmakers want to make sure that data is protected and not misused by test providers or other companies.
McHenry said Pearson, the international testing giant that has a $38 million state contract to conduct the MCAs and other exams, does not market students’ private information.
However, he said, some school districts could have testing deals with firms that use student data for things other than testing. “We strongly support protecting student data,” he said.
Scott Overland, director of media and communities for Pearson, said his company is dedicated to protecting student privacy.
“A healthy debate about how Minnesota approaches testing and taking steps to ensure that student data privacy is protected and not used for commercial purposes are goals that we share and concepts we support,” Overland said in a statement.
“We will continue to monitor this and other proposals that could make a positive impact on Minnesota students.”
Minnesota lawmakers and education advocates also want parents and teachers to better understand proficiency test results.
The No Child Left Behind Law was criticized for ushering in an era of test obsession, but the legislation also was praised for the detailed information it produced about the academic skills of all students.
Disaggregating data about student achievement — essentially detailing the academic performance of students of particular races or who face certain challenges — gives communities a wealth of new information about the successes and failures of their public schools.
Minnesota could take it a step further by expanding how the current data about student groups data are sorted. The state now breaks down the information by race — Asian, African American, Hispanic and American Indian — and then into the subgroups of English learner, special education and free- and reduced-price lunches.
The All Kids Count Act being considered by lawmakers would expand those categories to include more information about students race and ethnicity. For example, educators would have more information about how Hmong students performed academically compared with other Asian students.
“Currently, some groups are being lost in the fray, quite frankly, because of our broad definitions of race and ethnicity,” said Joshua Crossen of the Minnesota Campaign for Achievement Now, or MinnCAN, an education reform group supporting the bill.
However, state education leaders say increasing the level of detail about student achievement could make it more difficult to protect privacy. Currently, when fewer than 10 students are in a particular subgroup, their test results are not included with a school’s grade-level results to protect their identities.
“This is a good idea. We need to figure out a way to do it and still protect student privacy,” McHenry said.
One issue lawmakers are unlikely to tackle this year is changing how often students take federally mandated tests. The Every Student Succeeds Act maintains the federal requirement that students in elementary, middle and high school take annual assessments of the academic skills.
The new law promises more state control and flexibility in what those tests look like, but the extent of that local authority will not be clear until summer.
Once they have the federal guidelines, Minnesota lawmakers will have to strike a careful balance between allowing districts to try innovative ways of measuring student achievement and maintaining high academic standards. Federal law still requires 95 percent of eligible students be tested every year.
“Of course, we would love to see fewer, better tests,” said Specht, the teachers union president. “In this short legislative session, we can look behind the curtain and figure out what is going on with our (existing) testing system.”
Supporters of standardized tests agree transparency and accuracy are essential. They also want to maintain reliable information about the academic performance of all students.
“To the degree we explain why we have standards and the role they play, that’s a good thing,” said Bartholomew, the Minnesota Business Partnership official. “You have to have standards for everyone and have comparable results so you know how everyone is doing.”