In the dog days left before the start of the new school year, watch for a flurry of headlines about standardized tests in Minnesota schools. Depending on who is doing the talking, the tests are either the beginning of a new, more rational era, the beginning of the end or Waterloo for fed-up teachers.
Late in the month, Minnesota is set to release the results of the first statewide test to measure student proficiency under a new, more rigorous set of benchmarks.
Expect ‘falling’ scores
If the results of the first English language arts test pegged to the Common Core Standards are anything like those posted when the new assessments were used in Kentucky and New York, scores will fall correspondingly.
The deep breath and nuanced explanation that should follow the seeming bad news?
Good luck with that, district leaders and state Department of Education brass. Commissioner of Education Brenda Cassellius last spring sent a letter to Minnesota parents explaining the change and cautioning that lower scores are one likely result. The din, however, threatens to drown her out.
Long billed as a mousetrap that really is better, measuring things like critical-thinking skills, the Common Core’s rollout is taking place at a time when any number of education stakeholders have begun demanding a drastic decrease — if not the wholesale suspension — of testing.
Minnesota, it’s important to note, will not adopt the Common Core math standards. The standards enacted toward the end of Gov. Tim Pawlenty’s administration exceed them, an assessment the current regime agrees with.
In New York state as a whole, 31 percent of students passed the new tests, according to results released last week, as reported by the New York Times. A little more than a fourth of New York City third- through eighth-graders passed English tests while 30 percent passed in math, vs. 47 percent and 60 percent respectively on the old tests.
In some large districts, the numbers were even gloomier. In Rochester, for instance, only 5 percent passed in either subject.
Kentucky’s proficiency numbers, first released last year, were similarly depicted as plummeting, showing an overall drop of 30 percentage points.
Student ‘mastery’ redefined
Defenders of the new regime say that even if the only shift under way were to a more rigorous test, smaller numbers can’t be interpreted as a lack of gains. Not only are teachers in the early stages of understanding the corresponding curriculum, mastery is defined in a very different way.
This is not likely to satisfy some detractors, who point to some $150 million poured into the effort to create the standards by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation as evidence that the exams are a central plank of a scheme to “corporatize” the nation’s public schools.
To have even a chance of deciding for yourself what to make of the fracas, you must travel back ever so briefly to 2001, when President George W. Bush and a bipartisan panel of senators and congressmen passed a law requiring all schools that receive federal funding to administer annual standardized tests and to report how various groups of students perform.
Each state was allowed to set its own bar for proficiency. And because the law, No Child Left Behind (NCLB), required continual improvement in scores, as time went by some lowered their standards in response.
Nor were the tests meaningful or helpful to educators. They did not show how much a student learned from one year to the next, and they did not reveal where gaps in knowledge lay. Educators rightly complained that they had little incentive to teach higher-order thinking and that prep time consumed valuable instructional days.
Because the tests didn’t yield data educators need, most districts had to add another set of standardized tests that came closer. Those, along with pre-college-readiness and other tests, overwhelmed teachers and students alike.
Fatally flawed as the law was widely regarded right out of the gate, it did for the first time reveal how many students — and in particular how many low-income minorities — did not reach even basic proficiency. The sense of urgency this sparked fueled efforts to figure out how to measure the effectiveness of everything from teachers and principals to the programs that trained them.
Law created political pressures
And the urgency created political pressures. Among them legislative campaigns to ensure that educators and administrators are evaluated on a regular basis and to end so-called “last-in, first-out” layoffs of teachers. That the tests might be used to create alternative means of identifying effective teachers and principals only added to the debate.
In 2009, a coalition of most state leaders came together to try to fix some of the issues regarding the tests by coming up with the Common Core Standards, a list, essentially of the things U.S. students should know and skills they should exhibit.
Among their goals: To reincorporate essays and other methods of assessment that demonstrate not just whether a student can produce the “right” answer, but how they think.
The idea was opposed as a “national curriculum” from the start by the far right. Texas refused to participate and Creationist lawmakers here and elsewhere pushed through laws — since reversed in Minnesota — outlawing the adoption of science standards. Also politically dicey: History, where the teaching of “American exceptionalism” might get short shrift in comparison to lessons about slavery.
At the outset, 48 states were part of the Common Core consortium. At least 10 are now considering dropping out or delaying implementation.
Minnesota, it’s worth noting, adopted better tests several years ago and is not a formal consortium adoptee. The new measures allow administrators to identify classrooms where the most gains are achieved and to pinpoint programs that particularly well — or poorly — with low-income or special-needs students.
Last year, standardized tests were one of the major issues in the closely watched strike by Chicago teachers. Not only were they a waste of precious time, the exams, some said, would be used to identify failing schools for closure, with the aim of funneling the students displaced into “private” charter schools.
Similar fears are circulating here, even though Minnesota does not allow private charters and has a stringent new set of charter accountability measures that mean all persistently underperforming schools, regardless of their legal organizing device, will have to get up to snuff or face takeover or closure.
Local efforts seek limits on tests
Meanwhile, efforts to curtail testing are on the table in the central cities, where teacher unions are negotiating contracts with their districts. The St. Paul Federation of Teachers has asked the district to scrap the legally mandated Minnesota Comprehensive Assessments and replace them with locally crafted ones. Minneapolis teachers, meanwhile, want the district to stop administering district-level tests.
Cassellius is on record favoring fewer, better tests, as is Dayton. But Minnesota can’t unilaterally decide not to administer federally mandated tests. Nor are evaluations of teachers and principals going to disappear from law.
And so ready or not, later this month the first Common Core results will be released here. What’s to be made of them remains to be seen. The only certainty: They will be subject to as much political spin as any other hot-button topic.