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Want to know how Minnesota’s students are doing? Ask them.

This moment calls for a new way to understand student success.

In 2015, I wrote an op-ed for the Star Tribune urging lawmakers “to add depth to … student stories through data.” At the time, I thought standardized test data revealed important narratives often left out of conversations about educational opportunity.

I was wrong.

A standardized test won’t tell us if a child’s academic performance is lagging this spring because the grandmother she would study with succumbed to COVID-19 last fall. A test won’t tell us if a Black middle schooler is experiencing a renewed joy of learning because remote learning frees him from the fear of being targeted for arrest or suspension at school.

If we want to know how Minnesota’s students are doing and what they need to thrive, we should start by asking them.

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When the Minnesota Department of Education (MDE) decided to resume administering the Minnesota Comprehensive Assessments (MCA) this year, I realized they were making the same mistake I had. Their decision avoids the inconvenient truth: Standardized tests are not very useful in understanding how students are actually doing.

Agreement spans the political spectrum

Agreement on this point spans the political spectrum. Minnesota’s Office of the Legislative Auditor found in a 2017 report that the benefits of standardized tests to the state are “mostly indirect” due to their limited explanatory power. Denise Specht, president of Education Minnesota, issued a terse statement on Feb. 11 decrying MDE’s decision to resume testing and questioning the test’s usefulness. Even the Minnesota Senate passed a bill last week instructing MDE to develop its testing plan while the bill’s author, Sen. Roger Chamberlain, admitted his distaste for the exams.

Anil Hurkadli
Anil Hurkadli
In the wake of the upheaval this last year has brought, we have a unique opportunity — educators, legislators, and all those who care about educational equity and effective assessment in Minnesota. We must accept that a standardized approach does not work in the way it was intended and find another path forward.

If our goal is to assess and improve the student experience in Minnesota, the field of participatory action research (PAR) offers the best option available. PAR focuses on real-life challenges, taking a holistic view and rejecting the false notion that complex experiences can be distilled into numbers alone.

The Minnesota Department of Education could redirect a portion of the millions spent on testing contracts and pilot an ambitious new approach to learning and evaluation in the wake of COVID-19 — one that gets to the core of what standardized testing attempts but consistently fails to achieve.

How it would work

A pilot would start with asking high school students in a handful of classrooms across the state to identify research questions most important to them and their education. Professional researchers would play an active role facilitating the process, training students on skills such as interview techniques, sampling, reflective practice, democratic dialogue, and data collection. Once the data is analyzed and a product of the study created, the students present it to whomever they know needs to hear it: parents, teachers, lawmakers, Gov. Tim Walz, or their fellow students. Every year, the process begins anew.

This method allows students to evaluate their own educational experience and disproves the problematic mindset that students are unable to offer a valuable analysis of their own circumstances. It better captures the in-between spaces of young people’s complex lives and gives students often at the margin — due to their race, class, ethnicity, gender identity, or ability — more agency to demand the education they deserve.

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Equipped with new skills and the agency to create this knowledge, students will produce more legitimate, just, and responsible proposals for leaders to implement. Organizations such as Youthprise and MIT’s Collaborative Action Lab (CoLab) are already proving PAR’s efficacy and changing the conversation about its role in a more democratic society.

A crucible moment

Students across the state are reeling from the trauma of a difficult year, and our public education system is facing a crucible moment. Every decision about our schools made today will have a ripple effect across multiple generations. The pandemic and the uprising for racial justice revealed the many weaknesses of our institutions, and these crises showed us that the tools of the past will not serve us in an uncertain future.

We will never do better until we know better. And we will never know better unless we let students’ voices rise above the noise of adult ideology, ignorance, and inertia. It’s time for adults to listen and be willing to be changed by what we hear.

Anil Hurkadli is a former Minneapolis Public Schools district leader and the former executive director for Teach For America in the Twin Cities. He is currently a mid-career MPA student at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government.

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