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Dayton’s testing idea has ed world wondering: Why?

The governor’s proposed reduction goes further than recommendations issued by a Department of Education task force — and further than his commissioner has gone.

Gov. Mark Dayton would like to see Minnesota students taking fewer standardized tests.

Dollars to doughnuts Gov. Mark Dayton has an end game in mind for the 2015 legislative session. And if the last four years are any indication, the substructure — unsexy enabling legislation and other quiet tweaks — won’t be visible for weeks or months yet.

How else to explain his proposal to eliminate a third of the tests Minnesota currently requires schools to administer to K-12 students?

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Sure, there’s concern that students and teachers are weighed down by a thicket of often redundant and unhelpful assessments. And yes, Dayton campaigned on a promise to inject some sanity into the debate. And yes, the reduction is on the wish list of the teachers union, which just helped the DFL keep the executive branch and the Senate.

But none of that explains why this particular proposal, and why now. Dayton’s proposed reduction goes further than a set of recommendations issued last month by a Department of Education task force. And further even than the more audacious recommendations state Education Commissioner Brenda Cassellius subsequently made to lawmakers.

Rereading Machiavelli?

It’s enough to make a body wonder whether Dayton has been rereading his Machiavelli. Indeed it appears likely many of this year’s thorniest policy prescriptions will be settled by horse-trading in conference committee. So why not stock up on bargaining chips?

While it's unclear there is an "epidemic" of standardized testing, the issue has become a major political issue nationwide as the results of student performance exams have found their way into everything from school ratings to teacher evaluations. At the same time, the general public and even some educators aren't well versed in what different assessments measure and how the data gathered is used.     

Right now, Minnesota schools must administer 21 exams to all students between their third and 11th grades (see chart below), as well as a special set of language assessments for students learning English.

As required by state and federal law, students take the Minnesota Comprehensive Assessments (MCA) in reading and math every year in third through eighth grades, reading again in 10th grade and math in 11th. They also take MCAs in science in fifth, eighth and either 10th or 11th grade.

Minnesota statewide testing program, 2014–2015
MCA and MTAs
(English learners only)
Explore and plan
(Math, reading, English and science)

X Required for federal and state accountability. Developed and administered by the state (includes MCAs and special education assessments).

X Required for English Learners for federal Title III accountability. Used as exit criterion for state funding. An alternate assessment is available for ELs with significant cognitive disabilities.

X Nationally available assessment required as part of Career & College assessments.

Source: Minnesota Department of Education

The other four are college-readiness and career aptitude tests that are administered by the company that produces the ACT. Last year, in response to work done by an assessment and accountability task force convened at the governor’s request in 2012, Minnesota lawmakers replaced a series of required high school exit exams with the ACT and variants.

Dayton's proposal

Dayton would eliminate the MCAs in math in grades three and four, reading in grades six and seven, and three of the four college- and career-readiness exams. His rationale: Because literacy by third grade is crucial, reading should be assessed first. Math becomes more complex as students enter middle school.

“If the federal education law does not change,” the governor said in a letter sent Thursday to legislative leaders [PDF], “I will direct the commissioner to request an amendment to our waiver from No Child Left Behind that will allow us to make these changes.”

Dayton’s proposal looks a lot like the National Education Association’s 2015 congressional platform, which calls for assessments once at each level, elementary, middle and high school. And it jibes with calls for fewer tests by Education Minnesota.

By contrast, the task force convened over the winter — composed of representatives from groups that are frequently at ideological odds — would eliminate two of the career-aptitude assessments and the high school MCA in science [PDF] .

Task force members surprised

“Most people on the committee are very surprised,” says Brian Sweeney, who represented Charter School Partners on the task force. “The commissioner was very involved in the discussion. If anything she was an advocate of some consistency and how the feds would see substantive changes to some of the tests.”

Fellow task force member Jim Bartholomew of the Minnesota Business Partnership adds that the governor’s proposal would do nothing to address the number of additional tests local districts add to the state’s requirement. The group identified these as a major source of time spent on testing.

The task force, he says, astonished, came very near consensus — a rarity indeed in the complex and controversial area. In part that’s because as of this year the MCAs have been refined to the point where they serve the same function as many of the ancillary tests schools and districts administer on their own.

For the first time this year teachers can get the results back immediately, which means they can use the information gleaned to reach students before the school year is over. They can see specific data about kids who are below or above grade level. And they can administer practice-run tests throughout the year if they want to measure student growth.

Bill would institute task force results

House File 1392, a bill introduced by Albert Lea Republican Rep. Peggy Bennett the day before the governor made his proposal, would institute the task force’s recommendations. Cassellius' office has said she fully supports the governor's request. In the past the commissioner has expressed an interest in studying whether testing less often than every year would work.  

In a cover letter sent to lawmakers last month along with the task force report [PDF], Cassellius said she would like to keep the high school science test and would also like to cap the amount of time schools can spend on testing at 2 percent of student instructional time.

“This means a school district could not test more than 18.7 hours in elementary and 20.4 hours in secondary,” the commissioner wrote. “Our once-a-year state tests would count in this total and this recommendation would help reduce the amount of time spent testing.”

According to task force members, Cassellius’ proposal to cap testing time is in part recognition that the state has no control over many of the tests stressing teachers and students in some districts. Because the MCAs have historically not provided real-time information or data on where students below or above grade are, lots of districts purchase growth-model tests.

In addition, many districts administer tests to determine which students are on track to pass the MCAs as well as formative assessments — quizzes that help teachers determine whether a student has mastered a particular lesson.

According to a survey of half of Minnesota districts conducted by the task force, 98 percent of schools administer more tests than are required by law. Almost all administer one or more “practice” MCAs throughout the year, among other tests. More than 28 percent administer four additional tests, while 19 percent give three.

MAP a popular addition

One of the most popular assessments is the MAP, an “adaptive” test students take on a computer that gets harder as they go. Districts began giving the test in addition to the MCA because it yields real-time information on exactly what skills students have mastered and which ones are missing.

The MCAs, meanwhile, have been a work in progress. Because they were originally designed to measure schools’ performance and not to help teachers reach individual students, past iterations have been lackluster.

At the same time, in recent years new, more complex standards outline what knowledge students should know, making the tests harder and putting stress on teachers without experience preparing students for the new measures.

Last year, for the first time the state tests allowed apples-to-apples comparisons over the year before. This year, they could arguably allow for the elimination of some of the voluntary tests.

Calls for consistency

And education advocates and policy wonks with testing expertise have called for consistency. Daniel Sellers, head of the advocacy group MinnCAN, earlier this year called on state officials to allow everyone to get used to the current set of tests.

More recently, Search Institute President Kent Pekel, who has a deep background in assessment policy, described the value of consistency in the online education forum Contract for Student Achievement.

“Whatever you think of the testing debate, we need some level of consistency if we are to support and drive significant improvements in educational outcomes, especially for low-income students and students of color,” he wrote.

“During the decade that Massachusetts became America's unquestioned educational leader, that state maintained consistency in key policies across both Republican and Democratic governors and through significant changes in the composition of the legislature. Unfortunately, our leadership in Minnesota today shows no sign of a similar willingness to think and act seriously in the long-term interest of our students and our state.”

Many hot ed issues this year

So why make such a far-reaching proposal? Testing reduction is far from the hottest potato on the legislative agenda this year. There are many issues dividing so-called traditionalists and reformers, chief among them a long-fought controversy over factoring teacher performance into layoff decisions.

The GOP-dominated House fast-tracked the red-hot bill, which included other controversial measures, to the floor. The DFL-majority Senate, meanwhile, hasn’t yet indicated whether it will hear a companion bill.

Which means the slug-fest — and if past years are prologue it will devolve into a grueling contest — will take place largely out of the public eye in conference committee.

The other marquee item on Dayton’s education agenda, universal pre-K for 4-year-olds, is also on Education Minnesota’s wish list. Much of the same confusion surrounds that move, which many early childhood advocates believe would undercut a scholarship and quality-ratings system developed with widespread bipartisan support.

Streamlining assessments has been on Dayton’s agenda since his days on the campaign trail. Still, with several major items likely headed for conference committee, it can’t hurt the governor to have gains to deliver to offset concessions.