Education accomplishments, aspirations, and assessments in Dayton’s State of the State

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In his State of the State address, Governor Dayton prominently featured education. He touched on the accomplishments of recent years, described aspirations for the future, and continued the public discussion of appropriate assessment use.

High on the list of education-related accomplishments were the recent increases to education funding and the very recent anti-bullying bill. Those funding increases started building us a path out of the hole dug during the Pawlenty years, and allowed for aggressive new initiatives like universal all-day kindergarten. A reformed anti-bullying bill was long overdue, and the product of significant effort from many parties.

Looking ahead, Dayton spoke about expanding opportunities for students to be in school — an idea critical to the full-service community schools model — and of continuing to expand the state’s investment in early childhood education. While I’d like to see more attention paid to helping districts expand their free-to-families pre-K programs, the state’s voucher-style scholarship program still opens up access for many families, especially since the early childhood sector already relies heavily on private options compared to the public K-12 sector.

What will likely get the most attention and debate in the next few years, though, is the changing role of assessments in education policy. Here, it’s useful to remember the different reasons for assessing students’ proficiency, and to distinguish between the most suitable assessments for each goal.

Some tests we give because the federal government requires us to. These requirements are mostly met by the statewide Minnesota Comprehensive Assessment tests, the typical standardized tests bemoaned in many circles. These also serve the state’s interest of maintaining awareness of student proficiency in tested areas and monitoring outcomes for equity.

When it comes to helping schools and teachers improve, though, large-scale standardized tests aren’t useful. Many districts have attempted to overcome these tests’ shortcomings by instituting locally administered standardized tests given multiple times a year, providing a clearer understanding of student growth. For state and local standardized tests, the goal should be to raise flags for further inquiry; becoming too dogmatic or algorithmic about chasing test score targets narrows curriculum, limits instructional freedom, and burns out students and teachers alike.

For helping students and teachers improve, the real value is in effective classroom-level assessment. Dayton alluded to this, describing quick checks for proficiency that teachers incorporate into their teaching. This is good classroom practice, and it’s important that those of us who criticize the overuse and misuse of standardized tests emphasize the importance of more meaningful classroom assessments as a means of helping teachers and students.

There are so many levels to education that it’s easy to feel overwhelmed. Dayton did a good job highlighting key accomplishments and aspirations, and he kept the momentum for rethinking our approach to assessments going. We need to ensure that public discussion continues and stays productive.