Minnesota rethinking MCA math-test do-overs

/ 19 April 2012 / jennifer

Mila Koumpilova, Pioneer Press, April 19, 2012 –

Most Minnesota students get three cracks at the state’s high-stakes math test this spring.

For the first time, elementary and middle schools get to pore over results, regroup and run the online test once or twice more in a three-month window. Not in districts including St. Paul and Rosemount-Apple Valley-Eagan, though, which stuck with a paper-and-pencil version of the test.

Now, the state is considering doing away with the do-overs on the third- through eighth-grade Minnesota Comprehensive Assessments, or MCAs.

That plan has irked educators who say that for once MCA results came in handy in the classroom this year. But others have said the do-overs put paper test-takers at a disadvantage and add to the growing time students log taking assessments.

“We’ve heard a variety of concerns,” said Keith Hovis, a spokesman for the Minnesota Department of Education. “That conversation is still ongoing.”

The state uses math and reading MCA scores to determine if schools are making achievement gains mandated under the federal No Child Left Behind law. Over the years, failure to hit improvement targets has brought penalties such as having to chip in for private tutors or transportation to other schools.

The scores will weigh less heavily under a No Child Left Behind waiver Minnesota secured, but they’ll still count. And parents will likely still peek at them before choosing a school.

But to educators, the tests have not been much use. They get their results back in the summer – long after they can plug any holes in student learning the assessments uncover. The new online math test gives prompt feedback.

“In previous years, the information was DOA – dead on arrival,” said Steven Geis, principal at Farmington’s North Trail Elementary. “What a breath of fresh air getting the results in a timely manner.”

In Farmington, students took the math test six weeks ago. Educators at North Trail used the results to gauge each student’s knowledge, swapped teaching strategies and adjusted their lessons. When third-graders retook the test this week – same state math standards, different questions – the school saw some overall gains in proficiency.

The state will honor the highest score for each student.

Hovis said in offering the retake option, the state responded to educator calls to make the test more relevant to the classroom. The department estimates about 75 percent of students in the state will take the computerized version of the math MCA this spring. Bandwidth and other technology limitations explain why some districts have not made the shift to online tests, Hovis said.

Most districts offering the computer version are only opting for one do-over, said Geis, who serves on the board of the Minnesota Elementary School Principals’ Association. A few, such as New Prague, plan to administer the test three times.

In St. Paul, the state’s second-largest district where some 30,000 students take the MCAs, hosting the computerized test even once would have been a logistical adjustment, said Matthew Mohs in the district’s accountability office. An entire school can sit for the paper test in a day and return to learning; at some schools, cycling groups of students in and out of computer labs could stretch for more than a week, Mohs said.

Most St. Paul students already take a national computerized test gauging growth three times a year.

“We decided it wasn’t worth the trade-off,” Mohs said of switching to the online test, which the district plans to pilot at some schools next year.

Mohs said some staffers have second-guessed the decision; they worry the second and third chances neighboring districts get will give them an edge this testing season.

But Michael Rodriguez, a testing expert at the University of Minnesota, said it’s a slight advantage at best. Even several weeks of additional work between tests shouldn’t yield markedly higher results, unless a school has many students on the cusp of proficiency.

“If students are far from the cut score, a short period of remediation won’t do much,” he said.

Meanwhile, the state continues taking feedback on a tentative plan for next year: Districts can administer the math test twice from October to February and get instant results that won’t count. In the spring, students will get just one crack.

In coming years, more of the state tests will migrate online though the Education Department has no timeline for phasing out the paper tests.

To Geis, the department’s plan would be a step backward. It will revive a long-standing educator gripe: Several hours of testing yield a high-stakes verdict on a year’s worth of learning, with no do-overs.

“We don’t know if the student’s dog died or if they didn’t get a good night’s sleep,” he said.

The pressure to make the most of that one chance has led some Lakeville schools to host pre-MCA pep rallies featuring upbeat tunes from the marching band, said Jim Skelly, a board member there.

“The numbers are very important to schools because a lot of decisions are based on these tests,” he said.

Rosemount-Apple Valley-Eagan will switch to the computerized math test next year. But even if the state still offers retake opportunities, the district will run the test once, as late in the school year as possible, said assessment coordinator Michelle DeMers.

“Why would you give a test in the middle of the school year when you’re not done teaching the content yet?” she said. “I think it’s more important to get more instruction in.”

Mila Koumpilova can be reached at 651-228-2171. Follow her at twitter.com/MilaPiPress.