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

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.

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.

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.

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?

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

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Comments (5)

  1. Submitted by Jim Bartholomew on 09/08/2014 - 12:36 pm.

    Stick with MN developed MCAs

    Until this year, the state required most students to take ONE reading and ONE math exam per year….

    ONE science exam is also given in grades 5, 8 and 10 (generally).

    These exams, the MCAs, are developed with MN educators and are directly aligned to MN student standards – also developed with MN educators.

    As a result, MCA results give students, parents and educators critical information on how well students are performing relative to standards that have been set by MN educators – and aligned to college/career expectations.

    As Ms. Briner from MDE said, MCA exams will be computer based this year with results available immediately, with practice questions available.

    Again, Ms. Briner is correct, it’s time to ask if districts should stop paying for extra tests like the NWEA, and rely on the MN developed MCAs.

    If we’re not worried about the bottom line of these extra test vendors, this is an easy answer.

    BTW, why is the state now requiring all 8, 10 and 11th graders to take two state exams – the MCAs and the ACT suite of exams? Especially since the ACT exams are NOT aligned with MN standards. With MCAs students and teachers are working towards the same goal – mastery of state standards. With unaligned ACT what’s the priority now?

    If it’s to measure readiness for post-secondary education, passing the 10th (reading) and 11th grade (math) MCAs is a great indicator – 2014 Getting Prepared report.

    MCAs give us great information, let’s use it!

  2. Submitted by Marc Post on 09/08/2014 - 04:33 pm.

    How about we give each and every test our government requires to our elected officials and make the results public? Not only would it provide good humor and speak to their qualifications, it just might make it clear just how over tested our students are.

  3. Submitted by Seth Kirk on 09/08/2014 - 11:17 pm.

    “…we don’t do a great job sharing with the public.”

    Remember back in the late 90s when ramp meters were installed on freeway entrance ramps in the Twin Cities? The folks at MNDoT assured us all that they made the system work better, that they had worked in other cities, that the models showed that ramp meters improved overall flow. However, the argument wasn’t compelling to drivers, the data was weak, and everybody hated the red lights they were facing on the onramps.

    So some combination of that public outrage mixed with Jesse Ventura, Dick Day, and budget surpluses led to the state legislature mandating that MNDoT actually prove that the ramp meters were good for us. They ran the experiment, and lo and behold, the data proved that the ramp meters actually worked to improve traffic flow.

    However, MNDoT also got the message that people really didn’t like the ramp meters even if they did work. So we kept the meters, but turned them down a bit, reducing the emotional response of drivers by reducing how visible the meters were, but at the same time reducing how well the meters worked to improve the system.

    My experience with kids in public schools is that it’s the adults in the schools who hate the tests, not the kids. We don’t do a great job of sharing with the school staff or with parents how the tests help the system. Until we do, there will be cries from adults to remove the tests. And even if we are able to clearly demonstrate and communicate that the tests make the system work better, we still might need to tone them back a bit because of the emotional reaction some adults just have to these tests.

  4. Submitted by Lora Joshi on 09/09/2014 - 01:50 pm.

    Parent Perspective

    “Last year Minnesota granted a three-year $34 million contract to Pearson to administer the newest generation of MCA exams …” — This is the problem with all this testing. Wouldn’t $34 million be better spent in the classrooms?

    As a parent, I find the information given by the MAP test more useful and timely than that given by the MCAs. I can’t recall ever actually seeing my kids’ MCA scores (my oldest in in 4th grade, so last year would have been the first time he’d taken MCAs.) With the MAPs you can see growth over time, with more precise information about how and where you child is growing (or not growing). The information is delivered closer to the time of tests, and is thus more useful. (The article says this should change with newer versions of the MCAs, but thus far, the info comes out a year too late.) As I understand it, the MCAs are more limited, in that they just measure if you’re proficient (at grade level) or not. But if you child comes into a certain grade level already proficient, the MCAs don’t really tell if the child has grown during the year. Then it’s just a waste of time. If the point of the MCAs is to just give a yes or no for proficiency, it seems to me the classroom teacher would be very able to make that assessment without wasting all this class time and money on testing. (Again, having not actually seen any MCA results, I’m going by what I’ve heard from others about what the MCAs measure. This is just my own parent perspective.)

    I’m glad to see a discussion is happening about streamlining the testing. Standardized testing seems to be taking up way too much class time and school budget money.

  5. Submitted by brian treakle on 09/09/2014 - 01:57 pm.

    MCA Data

    First, testing costs money, both in developing the test and administering it. Schools give NWEA tests, MCA tests, MCA practice tests, ACT tests, formative and summative classroom assessments, and so on. We spend a lot of money to glean data from the progress our students are making or not making. The MCA’s mark their progress only against MN standards, which are higher that much of the rest of the nation. However, they stop at the grade level the student is in, so we don’t know if a 5th grader is capable of 6th or even 7th grade work. They show if they are under the 5th grade threshold, but not over. The NWEA’s are a national norm, not directly tied to MN standards, but the good thing they do is track a student’s progress beyond their grade level so that we get good data regarding student progress. They are given 2-3 times per year to see progress through the year and scoring is instant so that the teachers can start work in helping a student that needs more work now to catch up, or more challenge because they are ahead. The MCA’s take months to get the data back and are not as useful to the teachers for helping individualize a student’s education. I suggest that if the State wants to stick with the MCA’s and do away with the NWEA, that they develop a test that can give both instant data feedback and allow for students to show where they are truly at with the standards like the NWEA does. This would allow the MCA’s to take the place of the NWEA’s, and cut down on at least 1 test per student per year. It would give students and teachers instant feedback to help them with plans to move ahead, and show progress through the year for students and the aggregate district. Until this happens, educators will want both the NWEA over the MCA.

    MN should also be mapping their standards to the ACT which is a national readiness exam for college. Having this exam take over from 8th grade on, dumping MCA’s at this level in favor of a post secondary readiness. This allows students and educators to work with students to customize the education they need at this level to be ready for post secondary education. The bonus to this is that it would save money as well.

    Any choice we make must recognize that we are spending way to much time testing and not enough teaching. Computer labs are booked solid nearly all year with testing so that they can barely get any learning time used in the labs. Reducing testing will cut costs and free up resources, but can also, if done right, be used to improve education.

    So, the MCA while good, is not great. It could be better and allow us to be more efficient if developed right.

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