VOICES: NCLB test results: Bogus results for a misguided program

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There are several reasons why the results of a mandatory statewide test released Monday by the state Department of Education are bad news for Minnesota students.

The achievement gap between blacks and whites grew from 32 percent last year to 36 percent. These test results unfortunately don’t reveal any new information; a host of national tests show that Minnesota blacks lag greatly behind their white counterparts. The MCAII does nothing to shed more light on the issue.

34 percent of all students — only 8 percent of black students — passed this year’s 11th-grade math test. Next year, students will have to meet a minimum score on this test to graduate. Using these results as an example, 66 percent of all students would not receive a diploma.

Why did the Department of Education release these results before a holiday weekend – a tactic often used by public relations officials to hide bad news? Last year the department released similar bad news just before Labor Day weekend. The timing of the release is suspect. The week of July Fourth is a busy time for eating hotdogs and enjoying fireworks, but not for watching television news or reading newspapers. These results may never be known by many Minnesotans.

Most importantly, why should we care? The results come from the MCAII test, which is Minnesota’s response to the No Child Left Behind Act’s requirement for a statewide test to assess student achievement. The test’s results are widely regarded as painting an inaccurate picture of state education. The MCAII tests consist of one half-day spent on the math test then another half-day on the reading test. That’s it. The entire weight of NCLB lies on these two half-day tests.

Students in third through eighth grades were tested last spring in reading and math, while 10th-graders were tested in reading and 11th-graders were tested in math. Under NCLB, schools must disaggregate the test results and each group must meet achievement levels so their schools can be considered making “Adequately Yearly Progress.” Schools are required to meet 100 percent AYP proficiency within six years, a requirement that is clearly unrealistic.

To make matters worse, schools with many poor students receive Title I funds from the federal government for programs that help students learn. For Title I schools, failure on the MCAII test’s means losing some or all of that money as well as facing punishment that runs the gamut from being forced to spend taxpayer money for private tutoring companies to restructuring the schools administration and faculty. Meanwhile, schools that do not receive Title I funds face no sanctions at all.

Educators know this is a faulty way to measure student ability. They know the results are of little value. They know NCLB is a political animal and any smoke about the program being “for the kids” blew away years ago. Minnesota needs real educational accountability and student performance measurement tools. NCLB doesn’t provide either.