The Free Press, Mankato, MN


February 20, 2014

Our View: Measure the charter schools

Why It Matters: A legislative proposal would heighten test score scrutiny on charter schools in Minnesota.

The battery of exams that confront Minnesota students annually are known as “high-stakes tests” for a reason: Low scores have consequences both for students and for school districts.

A legislative proposal would turn up the consequences for Minnesota’s charter schools. A bill offered by Sen. Terri Bonoff, DFL-Minnetonka, would require charter school authorizers — the sponsors — to offer a defense for those schools whose test scores consistently rank in the bottom quarter of the state rankings.

Bonoff’s proposal would not force a low-ranking school to shut down, but she makes no bones about it: She thinks many of them should close.

Three charter schools in the Mankato area are among those who fall short on Bonoff’s criteria: Lafayette Public Charter School, Minnesota New Country School in Henderson and RiverBend Academy in Mankato. Not surprisingly, those schools and their supporters disagree with the notion that they should get extra scrutiny based on test scores. “We were never opened to try and pass standardized tests,” protests a teacher at Minnesota New Country in a recent Free Press story.

Reliance on standardized testing to measure academic achievement, be it by student or school, will always have detractors. But there is no reasonable dispute that, given the vast amounts of public resources expended on education, we need to know what we’re getting for our money.

And yardsticks are particularly valuable with charter schools, which are liberated from many requirements that constrain the majority of public schools and are intended to be innovative. What’s working? And, just as important, what isn’t? Innovation itself is not the goal; improvement is, and innovations are not always improvements.

Standardized tests may not be the perfect measurement, but there is a political and practical consensus that they’re the best tool we have for the task. Critics may complain about “teaching to the test,” but if — and it’s a big if — the test accurately measures what we expect students to have mastered, teaching to it is a laudable approach.

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