Nonprofit, nonpartisan journalism. Supported by readers.

MinnPost's education reporting is made possible by a grant from the Bush Foundation.

Get ready for ‘disappointment,’ political spin with new school-test results

students testing
Minnesota is set to release the results of the first statewide test to measure student proficiency under a new, more rigorous set of benchmarks.

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.  

Comments (6)

  1. Anonymous Submitted by Anonymous on 08/12/2013 - 11:25 am.

    Once again Beth Hawkins entirely misses the point. More and more difficult tests exist to give the impression of failing public schools so they can be taken over by charters and privatization. The professional teacher is in an existential crisis, to which Beth can be a proud contributor. That “secret sauce” of charters Beth talks about? It’s the billions given by plutocrats to destroy public education.

  2. Submitted by Joe Nathan on 08/12/2013 - 01:02 pm.

    Good preview

    Yes, there are new standards for students in reading, grades 3-8. Yes, many of the scores will be lower.
    No, this does not mean that schools are doing “worse” than they were before. It means that there are higher expectations. Not a bad thing, necessarily.

    But it is important to explain what the results do and do not mean. Thanks, Beth for helping to do this.

  3. Submitted by Stan Hooper on 08/12/2013 - 03:21 pm.

    Brand-New, So How Do You Get Lower? Or Higher?

    Lower scores compared to what? If this is truly the first time these particular tests are/were given to students, you cannot legitimately describe scores as either “lower” or “higher,” since there is no prior test result for these tests with which to compare. And, since the previous tests had different performance criteria, that re-emphasizes how first-time test results cannot be compared in any legitimate way. It’s a bit like previously playing racketball in a 6 wide x 10 long x 6 high foot room and then comparing those game scores to those played in a 20w x 40l x 20h foot room. The rooms’ dimensions are equivalent to the test’s performance criteria or to the toughening up of the test questions. In other words, give the tests some time to be administered, then make legitimate judgments about scores and score trends.

  4. Submitted by Josh Collins on 08/12/2013 - 05:03 pm.

    Let’s compare apples to apples

    Stan’s racquetball analogy is important (“Brand-New, So How Do You Get Lower? Or Higher?” above). If a child’s score on a harder test is lower than on an easier test, that student hasn’t slipped. They’ve been given a greater challenge, which may provide a more accurate assessment of how prepared that student is for the rigors of high school, college or the workplace.

    It’s easy to draw a line from year to year to show a trend. But when the variables are changed, as in implementing a more rigorous test, you’re no longer comparing equal measures. Acknowledging that the baseline is changing is not so much political spin as it is asking that we take a fair and honest look at the numbers.

    (Josh Collins is director of communications for the Minnesota Department of Education.)

  5. Submitted by Tom Anderson on 08/12/2013 - 08:36 pm.

    I’m with the teachers unions

    Throw out all testing and let the colleges and employers sort out the good from the bad.

  6. Submitted by Ross Reishus on 08/15/2013 - 10:30 pm.

    Once again…is right

    Neither Beth Hawkins, nor Joe Nathan, nor any other defender of repeatedly sloppy and wasteful and PHONY efforts at “reform” seem to answer to the uncomfortable fact that most of the “reforms” only make sense in one way. (I say this because none of the proposed reforms under conservative political rule include any actual education research data. Show me the data and I’ll change my mind, meanwhile) They make sense only if the goal is to discredit and demoralize schools. And the only logical reason to do that is to gain public support to privatize every last one of them. Given the chance, all the Republicans have done for education in this state is set it back over ten years in funding, and even further in actual reform. So much time had to be spent jumping through waste-of-time-and-your-money hoops that bared no resemblance to education that true reform has been set aside. Repeatedly. With the goal of discrediting, and demoralizing the entire educational system, in the hopes that it would collapse. Ironically, as each new test has been put before teachers and students, Minnesota teachers have risen to the challenge, and even when they were supposedly “failing,” our students scored far better than most of the nation, as usual. Why? Because our school system is still one of the best in the nation, BY ANY MEASURE. This isn’t a secret.

    But neither is this whole privatizing goal. After all, several ALEC members in the Republican parties of many other states have since copped to the fact that is IN FACT their goal. To privatize all things public. Not just schools. Everything. Because getting money from the government is easier than actual innovation (partly because universities do most of it. Actual industry research pales by comparison.) or competition with other businesses. In fact most new business laws are pushed by big companies to carefully and yet legally prevent smaller competitors from ever getting as big. That’s right, even businesses don’t like the almighty free market. Too many risks. So instead they shut down those risks by talking their lawmakers into drafting laws that help create and keep legal monopolies, for a start.

    I have heard it with my own ears that some farmers find it easier to “farm the government” for money, than to actually farm. By this I mean break their existing farm into smaller subsidiaries for tax benefit, or avoidance, or for a bigger government subsidy, sometimes all of the above, etc. Apple computer does it. ExxonMobil does it. U.S.Bank, Wells Fargo, the list goes on. They’ve all negotiated billions of dollars in annual government handouts. Because its easier than making money any other way.

    So why not farm the government even further by charging it to educate our youth? They’re already doing this in some states to incarcerate them. How good do you think privatized schools will be at keeping kids out of prisons as adults if they control both ends of the equation? And get paid by us to do it?? FOR PROFIT??

    Or is too much of this starting to make sense?

    Comments Beth? Anyone?

Leave a Reply