No recess and no band: Test score focus hurts kids, says new report

(via Minnesota 2020) Changes in school spending priorities over the last ten school years.

Did you take band, theater, phy-ed, or business class when you were in school? Then you may have been able to do something most kids can’t do or don’t have time to do these days because of changes in Minnesota school budgets — take an “enrichment” course.

A new study of Minnesota school district spending over the last ten years found that schools are spending their dollars to boost test scores on subjects students are tested on, but it comes at the expense of a broader education.

“We have students taking what we call double scoops of math and reading to try and get their test scores up”, said LeMoyne Corgard, President of Anoka Hennepin Education Minnesota. “But of course that limits the other options they have. It limits them access to the course work that they would like that really motivate them, inspire them and keep them engaged in our schools.”

It’s that engagement and motivation for learning that can make or break kids’ success once they finish school. Minnesota 2020, which did the study, calls that caring for the “whole child”, not just the simple test score. The report says parents should be worried that their kids are losing out on the courses that can actually help them learn better in life and increase their IQ.

“Standardized testing has been elevated so high that it’s really come at the cost of arts, music, all these programs that really draw kids to school and keep them in school”, says Sarah Lahm of ACT for Education. The middle school where Lahm’s kids go has band and music programs, but only because parents have fundraised to pay for it. “Most schools do not have a parent body that can afford that, so they do not have a band program for their children. So I feel that access is not equally available across the district.” Lahm says at least her school has 30 minutes of recess a day. She says a school that is a mile away dumped recess with the goal of boosting test scores. “I think that’s a huge problem.”

How much and where the cuts are in education

The study found that besides a ten percent cut in funding for most classes that aren’t math or English, schools have also cut funding for support staff such as counselors, social workers, nurses and library specialists. Funding for support staff is down about five percent from ten years ago – but during that ten-year stretch, it reached as low as 12 percent below where it started. While Tim Pawlenty was Minnesota governor, state aid was essentially cut… forcing schools into a double-bind where they needed to increase test scores with fewer dollars to spend.

“We really need to get back to the funding levels we had in the ’80s and ’90s in education because the last ten to 12 years have devastated a lot of options for kids”, says Corgard.

“When I first started 28 years ago, I worked at a school that had a full-time music teacher, a full-time phy-ed teacher, and full-time science teachers right there in the building”, said Nick Faber of the St. Paul Federation of Teachers. “Though one of the last buildings I worked at, we had no phy-ed teacher. And we were a community school that had a YMCA adjoined to it. We had the most beautiful gym in the entire city of St. Paul for our elementary students and no phy-ed teacher to teach them the skills inside that gym. We also had no music specialist in that school.

“We realized we had 39,000 kids in St. Paul and only ten librarians. Ten librarians for 39,000 kids.”

Those kind of numbers don’t show up on test scores, which are the numbers the state uses to monitor the progress of schools and hold them accountable. Scores released this week showed Minnesota students had the highest average ACT scores in the nation among states where at least 50 percent of the students took the test. This is the ninth year in a row that Minnesota has ranked number one. That ranking is something to celebrate, but only focusing on that number masks a lot of other problems that don’t show up in the test scores. The state needs other measurements.

That is the point of the report, says Minnesota 2020 Executive Director Steve Fletcher. “We need a state set of priorities that fully represent the whole child, not just the things that we can test and measure through tests.”

Editor's note: Sarah Lahm is a regular contributor and blogger for the Twin Cities Daily Planet.

(Text by Michael McIntee, video by Bill Sorem)

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Bill Sorem's picture
Bill Sorem
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Michael McIntee