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Student tests: Should Minnesota drop some (and if so, which?) — or maybe use two in tandem?

The Department of Education would like to keep the MCAs and pare back on other tests, including the NWEAs. Many in the research and evaluation community would like to do the opposite.

You might recall a grumpy little item appearing in this space in recent days about stagnant scores on this year’s Minnesota Comprehensive Assessments (MCAs). It contradicted the official version — that steady progress is being made — and sparked some spirited debates on the Internets.

The most interesting of the threads posed a good question: If Minnesota students are subjected to too many tests, which ones should we scrap? And more specifically, why not replace the MCAs with a set of tests most districts choose to administer in addition because they value the data gleaned?

The tests in question are known colloquially as the NWEAs, after the Northwest Evaluation Association, the group that created them, or as the MAPs, the group’s flagship Measures of Academic Progress.

No hotter question

If this sounds impossibly wonky, know this: In terms of the politics of education in 2014, there is perhaps no hotter question. Tests, we are told from virtually every corner, are crushing teachers and students and crowding out actual learning.

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Gov. Mark Dayton dedicated five paragraphs of his State of the State speech in April to a supposed epidemic of overtesting. He has vowed to streamline assessments if he wins a second term.

Under massive pressure from partisans in states where schools are facing the simultaneous arrival of tougher new standards and teacher evaluations, U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan last month opined that testing is “sucking oxygen out of the room.”

Teachers union affiliates, including those in Minneapolis and St. Paul, have called for streamlined testing regimes or for the wholesale end of assessments. In Minneapolis, DFL phone bankers have declared standardized tests a major issue in this year’s school board contest.

Several prominent Minnesota assessment gurus say there is a set of exams that can both collect the accountability data the state needs and yield real-time information teachers can use to help students progress throughout the year. Most districts already use them.

Pare back which tests?

The state Department of Education would like to keep the MCAs and pare back on other tests, including the NWEAs. A broad swath of the research and evaluation community would like to do the opposite.

“Two years ago I would have said unquestionably yes” to the idea of using the NWEAs as the state’s main assessment, said Kent Pekel, president and CEO of the Search Institute. “I’ve been very intrigued by the fact that the NWEAs can give you very specific information that’s useful at both the school and classroom level.”

The two years in question being the two years since Pekel has been a full time data guru, first as the executive director of research and development for St. Paul Public Schools and then as the founding executive director of the University of Minnesota’s College Readiness Consortium.

The computer-administered tests get harder as a student progresses, identifying the point at which he or she can no longer answer the questions. They are given at least in the fall and spring and often once or twice midyear, and yield rich data teachers and principals can use immediately.

In an April survey of assessment practices, the Pioneer Press reported that 470 of Minnesota’s 540 districts — a figure that includes charters — purchase the NWEAs. Perhaps because the data will be used to tailor instruction to students and not to evaluate adults, no one seems to stress about them.

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NWEA is a 40-year-old nonprofit founded by educators dissatisfied with the quality of standardized tests. The dean of Minnesota’s assessment community, Jim Angermeyr, is one of them.

He sits on NWEA’s board and is credited with helping to develop the MAP. Until recently, he was the director of research and assessment for Bloomington Public Schools.

Aligned to standards in other states

Like Pekel and his successor in Bloomington, Angermeyr is confident the NWEAs could easily be tied to Minnesota’s academic standards. The tests have been aligned to standards in other states. With most states now moving to Common Core standards, the group has already made sure most of its tests measure student performance on the new goals.

State officials aren’t so sure. They say they doubt the NWEAs could measure proficiency on Minnesota standards. Nor do they think the test would be adequate to assess proficiency in Language Arts, the area where the state has adopted Common Core standards.

“We’ve made such progress on the MCAs,” said state Department of Education Chief of Staff Charlene Briner. “Why scrap that and start over?”

Last year Minnesota granted a three-year $34 million contract to Pearson to administer the newest generation of MCA exams, which were created by Minnesota educators and administered by private vendors. The information gleaned is used in a number of ways, including a long-sought new statewide longitudinal data system.

Now in their third iteration, the MCAs were originally designed to satisfy the federal law requiring states to collect and publish, by race and other demographic subgroup, annual data on how many students can perform at grade level in math, reading and science. The purpose was to evaluate individual schools.

The earliest version, the MCA I, could not track individual students and therefore could not measure a student’s spring-to-spring growth. Results were not available for months.

MCA IIIs administered in April

Like its predecessors, the MCA IIIs are administered in April. Results generally are available by late summer and individual students now can be tracked from year to year. Starting next year, the tests will be conducted entirely online, which means results will be available right away.

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If educators want data throughout the school year, they can administer a practice version of the MCA, available on the department’s website, said Briner.

“What you hear is not just a preference for the test, but a way the information is presented,” said Briner. “When you look at the total picture of overtesting, the state is only requiring the MCAs.”

Districts should consider paring back the tests they choose to add, she suggested: “Maybe it’s time to look at scrapping the NWEAs and some of the other tests districts are purchasing.”

Angermeyr’s successor in Bloomington, former Minneapolis data guru Dave Heistad, said that is unlikely to happen without more dramatic changes to the MCAs that aren’t under discussion.

Heistad has used the district’s version of the NWEAs to predict student performance on the MCAs and the ACT and its precursor tests, given to see whether a student is progressing toward college readiness.

Sharing data with families

In fact, he has come up with a graphic tool [PPT] that allows teachers to share the data with families in a way that shows where they are in relation to the state standards and what type of college or university their student is on track to get into.

There is, of course, a third possibility. In national education policy circles it is often said that Minnesota is data rich and information poor. Put another way, we have Cadillac systems for collecting information, which we don’t do a great job sharing with the public.

Indeed, according to NWEAs research arm, as educators become more comfortable with using data in the classroom, perceptions of overtesting decline.

What does Angermeyr, designer of the NWEA and a self-professed testing skeptic think?

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It wouldn’t hurt to keep both tests, he said. A second data point always adds value to the first.