Minnesota’s tests: are they really worth the trouble?

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There are times in a person’s life – like when you give yourself a home perm or when you drive your car with the “check oil” light on – when you look at an expert and ask, “Is the damage really that bad?”

Take for example this column printed last week in the Worthington Daily Globe by Tammy Timko, the Worthington school district’s Coordinator of Teaching and Learning, and Val Nickel, a district administrative assistant. They answer questions about the upcoming tests students will take to meet graduation requirements and for the state to meet No Child Left Behind requirements.

Timko and Nickel explain the ins and outs of Minnesota assessments. Their answers are clear and professionally given. However, the testing schedule forced on them is labyrinthian and byzantine.

First, they answer which tests District 518 administers:

* Students in grades 3-8 will be assessed using both the Reading and Math Minnesota Comprehensive Assessment (MCA-II). In addition, students in grades 5 and 8 will be assessed using the Science MCA-II.

* Students in grade 9 will be assessed using the Graduation-Required Assessment for Diploma (GRAD) Written Composition. This assessment measures a student’s writing skills. Students who will be graduating in 2010 or later must score a 3 or better on this assessment to receive their diploma.

* Students in grade 10 will take a test that combines two assessments (Reading MCA-II and Reading GRAD). Students who will be graduating in 2010 or later must pass this assessment by either meeting the MCA-II assessment standards for proficiency or by passing the GRAD portion of the test. During high school, students must also take the Science MCA-II. This assessment is taken after completion of a Biology course, usually in grade 10.

* Students in grade 11 will take a test that combines two assessments (Math MCA-II and Math GRAD). Students who will be graduating in 2010 or later must pass this assessment by either meeting the MCA-II assessment standards for proficiency or by passing the GRAD portion of the test.

* Those students who are preparing to graduate this school year need to have passed the Basic Skills Test (BST) in reading, writing, and math before receiving their diploma. Students who had not yet passed these assessments have taken retests.

* English Language Learners take the Mathematics Test for English Language Learners (MTELL) in place of the MCA-II Math assessment. This assessment uses simplified English while maintaining the same grade level standards for math. ELL students grades 3-12 also take the Test for Emerging Academic English (TEAE) to measure reading, writing, and language proficiency, and grades K-12 are assessed using the Minnesota Student Oral Language Observation Matrix (MN SOLOM) to assess listening and speaking language proficiency.

* The district may replace up to 1 percent of the MCA-II test scores with the Minnesota Test of Academic Skills (MTAS) assessment. This assessment is reserved for students with significant cognitive disabilities.

How much time does all this testing take? Here are the dates for Worthington’s tests: Grades 3-5 Reading and Math: April 21, 22, 28, and 29; Grade 5 Science: May 19, 20, or 21; Grade 6-8 Reading and Math: April 20, 21, 23, and 24; Grade 8 Science: May 12, 13, or 14; Grade 9 Writing: April 14; Grade 10 Reading: April 14 and 15; High School Science (usually taken in 10th grade): May 5, 6, or 7; Grade 11 Math: April 14 and 15.

Timko and Nickel reiterate the importance of the GRAD tests: “Starting with 2010 graduates, the state will require that students pass a writing, reading, and math assessment before they receive their diploma. If a student does not pass these assessments, the student and his/her parents will be notified of opportunities for remedial instruction and retest dates.”

Like a mechanic giving you the cost of an engine rebuild or your hairdresser shaving the damaged hair off your head, Timko and Nickel save the truly bad news for the end of the ordeal.

First, they acknowledge the results from all this testing won’t be ready until August. While they don’t go so far as to say this, this means the results won’t help your child this year and will be out of date next fall after your child has been on summer vacation.

Next, they acknowledge that the MCA II is required by the state but the much more valuable NWEA or MAP tests are not. The NWEA test measures the growth and ability of students and gives teachers the ability to teach to the student’s strengths and weaknesses. The NWEA is also used to track student growth from year to year.

The NWEA is a good series of tests that the state does not require. The MCA II is a fairly useless test that the state forces districts to use whether they want to or not.

Our goal should be for students to have an opportunity to succeed and be on the path to post-secondary opportunities. Formative assessments help teachers track student growth through and between years. High stakes tests are limited in the information they divulge, their schedule is complicated and the disruption of the school day is immense. It’s time to shift away from the MCA II and toward and NWEA-type test.

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