MCA tests: Reality check


Wow. From whom does Beth Hawkins take her marching orders?

In a recent blog post, about how valuable the standardized MCA tests are, she describes her tone and intent as a “little ranty.” Ranty, yes. But whose rant is it?

In her post, Hawkins takes the Minneapolis Public Schools (MPS) to task for trying to paint the recent round of MCA test scores in a hopeful light, and chastises Education Minnesota president Denise Specht for putting out an anti-MCA press release.

In fact, Hawkins works very hard to defend the MCAs, and standardized testing in general. She even says that “standardized” testing is not about standardization, but simply about standards. Huh?

Standards surely provide the framework for what we expect kids to learn, and what skills we want them to acquire. Standards tend to be broad based and objective oriented, as seen in the “learning targets” found throughout MPS classrooms and syllabi.

Here is an example of a learning target from a Ramsey Middle School art class:

“I can revise and present my work based on the feedback of others, self-reflection and artistic intent.”

And here is one from a Nellie Stone Johnson School science class: “I can explain and analyze the relationship between weight and gravity.” 

Standards are guidelines, not multiple-choice tests written by testing companies. Standardized tests are in fact standardized because there is one right answer—one standardized, pre-determined answer—for every question asked. All students, from the analytical math kid to the future poet laureate, must answer all questions in the same way. Is that not the definition of standardization?

Standardized tests are about standardized measures of a limited aspect of student performance. They are less about the “standards,” and more about a cheap and superficial way to rank teachers, districts, and schools, not to mention students. Really, there are multiple ways—and better ways—to assess student learning.

Hawkins also states that some districts do require lots of additional tests to be given throughout the school year—which she refers to as a “tangle of assessments”—that, in her view, offer little meaningful information for teachers. But, she says, “those are not the MCAs.”

Actually, assessments given during the school year that give teachers immediate feedback about student performance make sense (although I think teachers should be able to choose the tests/assessments that they find most useful, in collaboration with other teachers, administrators, and families).

The MCAs, however, spit out results months after the school year has ended, long after any immediate assignment, task, or situation is over. What use is the information, to either student or teacher, then? What use is a test that does not inform the work of either the child or the teacher?

Perhaps it is not even so much that the MCA test is a terrible test, but rather the idea that we have put so much stock in it, to the point that bumping up student test scores—however artificially—becomes the whole point of our education system, even though many of our wealthiest, whitest students and schools are not bound by this incredibly narrow definition of student achievement. (Really. Call up one of our area’s premier private schools, like Breck or Blake, and ask for their view on standardized testing.)

And finally, it seems strange that Hawkins’ uses only the voice of MinnCAN to support her assertion that the MCAs are a very useful way to provide an equity check on the Minneapolis Public Schools.

To bolster her argument, she quotes MinnCAN Executive Director Daniel Sellers. Sellers, who once “closed the achievement gap” in his classroom as a Teach for America corps member, according to the MinnCAN website, shows up frequently in Hawkins’ blog, often as a voice against the “status quo” of MPS and public education in general.

MinnCAN is really an interesting choice for Hawkins to turn to, as its board chair is venture capitalist Benson Whitney. Whitney has a long history of involvement with Conservative organizations, serving not only as Minnesota Finance Chair for the Bush-Cheney team, but also through financial contributions to Republican candidates from Minnesota, as well as to the Arizona Republican party, according to

Frankly, I know of no evidence to suggest that MinnCAN, or its parent organization, 50CAN, should be our go-to experts on what is working and what is not within our public schools.

Are there no public school teachers, parents, or students who could shed some light on the use and misuse of standardized testing within the Minneapolis Public Schools?

Or do we think problems of student achievement, equal access to resources, and questions about how best to meet the needs of all students should somehow be handed over to for-profit standardized testing companies and the hedge fund-backed groups that support them?

Consider reading this article from the Atlantic, from July 2014, called “Why Poor Schools Can’t Win at Standardized Testing.” It’s quite illuminating.