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How to make sense of the latest Minnesota student test results

The bottom line: By and large, Minnesota students are pretty much where they were last year, and the year before, and the year before.

The shutdown may have delayed it by a month, but this morning’s release of the results of the 2011 Minnesota Comprehensive Assessment, or MCA, was as inevitable as death and taxes. Equally inevitable: wailing and gnashing over the interpretation of the scores.

They don’t call them high-stakes tests for nothing.

I hadn’t thought to write about the MCAs this year because, frankly, after years of writing articles suggesting that the tests take up precious instructional time, don’t measure actual learning and provide little of use to educators, I have lost interest in the topic.  

But then late yesterday morning my phone started to ring, and quickly the afternoon was lost as one anxious-sounding policy wonk after another volunteered to help frame my analysis. Each predicted sky-is-falling headlines. I gave up, got out my No. 2 pencil and started taking notes.

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Incremental gains (with many asterisks)
The bottom line: By and large, Minnesota students are pretty much where they were last year, and the year before, and the year before. They are making incremental gains, with wealthier kids posting enviable scores and their poorer brethren struggling.

Beyond that there are enough wrinkles affecting this year’s scores [PowerPoint] to use up an entire carton of asterisks.

Topping them all, of course, is the fact that as contemplated by the federal law that spawned the tests, the much-despised No Child Left Behind Act, we have hit the point where even our best schools are in danger of being labeled failures.

Reading scores in all grades rose by 1.6 percent to 74 percent proficient. Same headline as 2010: Progress, everyone from state Education Commissioner Brenda Cassellius to Education Minnesota President Tom Dooher agreed, but nowhere near the order that closes gaps.

More rigorous math test
Math is where the first wrinkles appear. Among third- through eighth-graders, there was an 8.7 percent drop in proficiency, which means 56 percent of kids passed the tests.  

But this does not mean math proficiency has fallen. Rather, it’s a reflection of the fact that last year students in those grades took a new, harder version of the MCAs pegged to a much more rigorous performance standard established in 2007. (Reading tests are still pegged to 2003 standards.)

Yes, it takes four years — and an ocean of tax dollars that might otherwise fund actual learning — for a private test developer to come up with an assessment that measures whether students meet the standard. Which makes it all the more unpleasant that in the past, the standards often haven’t had much to do with learning.

And yes, education administrators are prone to rationalizing poor test scores as the result of rigor. But Minnesota 11th-graders are still taking the old tests, the MCA IIs. Statewide, they posted an impressive 5.6 percent gain.

So, in terms of math, the upshot is that we don’t know how Minnesota students are doing compared to last year …

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… or the year before. In case you forgot last year’s asterisks, 2010 was the first year Minnesota used a so-called growth-model test, which compared individual students’ performance from one year to the next.

Because their purpose was to identify bad schools, not gaps in kids’ skills, prior to that the MCAs measured year-over-year performance by entire grades. So we could declare an individual teacher or principal a failure, but not identify what would help their pupils.

Teensy but steady gains from 2006-10
What we do know is that teensy but steady gains were posted between 2006 and 2010.

And we know some things about the characteristics common to many of the schools that show up as outliers: High-poverty schools with high proficiency rates or bigger-than-normal gains from one year to another. But that’s another story.

In theory, then, next year will be the first in which we’ll be able to tell whether a schoolchild has learned a year’s worth of math in a year, and whether that math is at grade level.

Except, of course, that Cassellius has formally asked her federal counterpart, Arne Duncan, for a waiver from NCLB. In her preliminary request for flexibility, she asked that Minnesota be given a three-year hiatus from having to demonstrate Adequate Yearly Progress.

The waiver would keep cumbersome, costly penalties attached to failing to make AYP from kicking in. In great schools, NCLB foes argue, those sanctions take resources away from programs that are working. In struggling schools, they’re downright punitive.

Minnesota will still hold itself accountable for student performance, Cassellius assured the U.S. Secretary of Education. But it would like to do so by using tests that supply meaningful intelligence about what’s going on in the classroom.

Little agreement on what should follow NCLB
Duncan is offering waivers because, while policymakers on both sides of the aisle agree that NCLB’s high-stakes testing has been a resounding failure, there is zero agreement what to do about it. The secretary is much fonder than most educators would like of continuing to administer standardized tests — just better ones.

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Lacking consensus within his caucus, Lakeville Republican John Kline, who heads the powerful U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Education and the Workforce, would like to replace the law piecemeal.

So which Minnesota schools are making the NCLB grade? I’m back where I was yesterday morning when the first alarm bell rang: I don’t care, and I’m hard pressed to suggest that you should, either.

Perhaps the banner headline of the day ought to trumpet the fact that Minnesota is one of a dwindling number of states not wracked by a scandal involving administrators alleged to have doctored students’ tests.