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by Alejandra Matos in the Star Tribune on Sunday, September 6, 2015

Members of a statewide teachers’ union want to limit high-stakes student testing to fifth and eighth grades to refocus teacher time on broader learning rather than test-taking.

Education Minnesota released a report Monday detailing how to improve assessments as state leaders engage in a larger debate about the issue.

“Too many policy debates are shaped by people who don’t work in schools,” union President Denise Specht said. “We believe it’s time to bring in experts, educators, to make policy recommendations that are grounded in their real work experiences.”

Teachers in the state and across the nation have been critical of high-stakes testing, saying the exams do not accurately reflect how well a student is learning.

Members of Congress and state legislators are considering changes to standardized testing. In Minnesota, the state Department of Education and school districts say they will administer fewer tests that take time away from instruction. Meanwhile, Congress is rewriting the federal No Child Left Behind law, which requires states to test every student.

Elizabeth Proepper, an elementary school teacher in Proctor and one of the report’s authors, said reducing the number of exams would help the save the state money. The state could then invest that money in buying a more well-rounded assessment, one that would allow students to explain their thinking and learning and not merely select an answer on a computer.

“It should not just be an A or B selection, but students should be assessed on showing their thinking process,” Proepper said. “It could be a writing piece or a project. There are many varied assessments that are better than a multiple-choice test.”

A key finding in the report says tests should be limited to two years. “Testing in fifth grade allows for an assessment of where students are as they leave elementary school, and testing in eighth grade allows for a similar assessment at the end of middle school,” the report said.

The exams also limit the curriculum, the report states. When states test mainly for reading and math skills, other areas of learning get ignored, Proepper said.

Testing advocates say the exams are a necessary tool to evaluate student progress and holding educators accountable. Testing advocates also say the exams are a means to identify achievement gaps between white students and students of color. Many states across the country, including Minnesota, use the results of mandated exams to evaluate teachers.

Daniel Sellers, executive director of MinnCAN, an education advocacy group often at odds with the union, agrees that there is too much testing and that the tests should be redesigned.

But, he said, students need to be tested annually so that educators can be held accountable for achievement gaps.

“They want to get rid of the one test that is actually measuring achievement gaps and helping us understand where we need to make investments to improve education,” Sellers said.

Education Minnesota officials will present their report at the State Fair on Monday.

“The fair is the perfect venue for all sorts of examples of student work, and all the things that are not tested,” Specht said. “We need to focus more on those skills.”


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