Measuring Minnesota proficiency: Duty of teachers or tests?

/ 3 May 2013 / eunice

Christopher Magan, Pioneer Press, May 3, 2013 – Minnesota’s proficiency tests, created to ensure all public school students are learning what they should in the classroom, have had a tough couple of weeks.

Lawmakers at the DFL-controlled Capitol voted to end exams that high school students now need to pass to graduate, a move Republican and business leaders said “dumbed down” the value of a diploma.

Meanwhile, efforts to transition the Minnesota Comprehensive Assessments, or MCAs, into digital tests that give teachers quicker feedback stumbled as thousands of students had trouble with the state’s new online testing portal. Students from elementary to high school take the tests, and problems were widespread enough that top education officials are wondering if the validity of the tests was compromised.

And, Brenda Cassellius, state education commissioner, reiterated her opposition to “high stakes” testing such as the MCA and the Graduation-Required Assessment for Diploma, or GRAD. Cassellius wants to redesign the measures because she believes the current tests give limited information about students’ skills and do little to help teachers.

“My goal for everything we do is that it helps students learn; everything else is second,” Cassellius said. “I don’t think we need to test every single student, every single year. I’m not against testing. I want it to be more useful.”

Cassellius wants a more diagnostic approach to assessing students, much of which would come from data teachers already gather in the classroom. A statewide examination of student achievement could be accomplished through random “sampling,” she said.

Many educators across the state like these proposals because they think that students are required to take too many tests and that district and state leaders rely too heavily on the results when making decisions.

But supporters of proficiency tests say eliminating the exams puts accountability at risk. Without an objective way to measure student achievement, they argue, there’s no way to know whether students have mastered the skills they need.

“The only way this is going to change is if there is heavy pushback from the public,” said state Sen. Sean Nienow, R-Cambridge, who is on the Senate education committee and fought to keep the GRAD test. “I absolutely think the education union would like to have a lack of accountability.”

Education leaders deny that claim. They say proposals to require students to take different assessments that gauge college readiness, such as the ACT, are more useful.

“I think it will do a better job, and kids will know exactly where they stand, which they don’t know,” Cassellius said. “No one is suggesting we change our standards. No one is suggesting we stop testing.”

But Jim Bartholomew, education policy director of the Minnesota Business Partnership, said abandoning the GRAD test comes after the test yielded improved results in reading and writing. Where scores have been stagnant is on the math test, for which lawmakers gave students a waiver if they couldn’t pass it, as long as they took the test three times and sought extra help.

The waiver is set to expire, forcing lawmakers to act, or thousands of students could be at risk of being denied diplomas.

“It’s no silver bullet,” Bartholomew said of the exam. “But here we are with large achievement gaps, and you are about to repeal something that is working.”

Cassellius countered that the positive impact of the GRAD test was small and not worth the social cost of denying diplomas over the results of one test.


Rather than rely on one test, the education commissioner wants to put to work data that teachers gather each day in the classroom. It’s an idea the St. Paul Federation of Teachers plans to use in its next round of contract negotiations, when it hopes to reduce the amount of standardized testing.

Union President Mary Cathryn Ricker says there needs to be a better balance between testing and teaching. Parents often give more weight to a teacher’s measurements than how a student scores on the MCA, she said.

“We have to shift the balance back to, quite frankly, what our teachers are paid to do,” Ricker said. “Those are the assessments that tell our students and parents something.”

But the subjective nature of teaching makes relying on teachers’ assessments troublesome, Bartholomew and Nienow say. Without a standard measure, it’s tough to compare the achievement of students in different classrooms, let alone different districts.

“Absolutely, there is a role for the teachers’ judgment,” Bartholomew said. “We have a statewide exam because of the consistency it provides. We have standards because we believe all kids can and should meet those expectations.”

Bartholomew supports the move to use the online MCA test and its more immediate results as a diagnostic teaching tool. Teachers long have complained that they received the results from paper and pencil tests far too late to adjust their teaching.

“Unfortunately, we are still in the early stages of building the statewide infrastructure to support it,” he said. “It remains unclear what led students to experience problems with their online tests on a few days in late April.”

Jon Cohen, who heads the American Institutes for Research assessment division, said his engineers fixed the problems with a computer server that caused problems for thousands of students April 16.

Neither AIR or the state have been able to determine what led to other slowdowns. “Right now, we are just trying to get through testing,” said Charlene Briner, chief of staff at the Education Department.

The state has a three-year, $62 million contract with AIR for a variety of testing services, including the online MCA tests. The contract includes provisions for the state to collect “damages” if the system does not perform as promised. But Briner said no decision has been made about whether to seek damages.

First, state leaders must determine whether the problems with the testing system influence results. Teachers worry that students who had no trouble with the online test might have had an unfair advantage over others who were frustrated by computer glitches.

“We have no intention at (the Education Department) of reporting results that are not accurate,” Briner said. “Even when the online tests go as planned, they have their detractors.”

Parents such as Shawn Springob, who has two daughters in Cambridge-Isanti schools, a district about 30 miles north of the metro area, said the new, instant feedback of the online tests gives teachers and administrators more reason to obsess about the test. Students now can take a version of the assessment up to three times a year, although only the final test counts.

“There is so much pressure to do well on these tests, so of course they teach to the test,” Springob said. “It directly takes away from instructional time for students.”

Cassellius hopes she and a group of stakeholders can redesign Minnesota’s proficiency tests in the coming months to address some of those concerns.

Minnesota was one of the first states to receive a waiver of requirements under the No Child Left Behind Act, implemented by President George W. Bush more than a decade ago. The waiver allows the state to create new accountability measurements, including students’ academic growth and success closing the achievement gap between white and affluent students and their poor and minority counterparts.

But the state must reapply for that waiver unless Congress moves to reauthorize the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, which has been stalled since before President Barack Obama took office.

Cassellius says she’ll propose more changes to the state’s proficiency tests and accountability system in Minnesota’s next application. She anticipates it will be submitted in the fall of 2014.

The redesign of assessments comes as most states prepare to implement a Common Core curriculum and assessments, something Minnesota has half-heartedly embraced. The state accepted the Common Core language arts standards but kept its own math benchmarks, arguing they’re more rigorous.

“I think this is an issue nationally that everyone is evolving on,” she said. “How do we measure achievement and hold schools accountable? I want to look at what is working and what isn’t.”

If what is happening to the GRAD is any indication of the direction state leaders want to go, supporters of standardized tests for accountability’s sake are worried.

“We can argue about high-stakes testing. I think there are improvements to be made,” said Nienow, the state senator. “You have to have some sort of measure to demonstrate proficiency. You can’t eliminate all standards. Then it doesn’t mean anything.”