MCA testing

Students at St. James' Northside Elementary take Minnesota Comprehensive Assessments and study in the media center in 2015. File photo

ST. PAUL — With less than a year to go until new federal education regulations start coming into effect, Minnesota will examine how state standardized tests such as the Minnesota Comprehensive Assessment work for school districts, teachers and parents.

The Office of the Legislative Auditor is gathering information on mandatory testing in Minnesota schools, where it hopes to look at how well tests are administered, how useful results are to districts, and how much it costs the state to use standardized tests, among other topics.

"It's quite a large topic," said David Kirchner, project manager for the legislative auditor, after an informal hearing Friday morning. "We're not going to be able to answer every single question that everybody has, and so we're trying to figure out which questions we can provide the most information about that would provide the most usefulness to educators and other people in the education policy community."

There are plenty of questions to tackle.

Minnesota students take standardized tests each year as part of federal statutes established by the federal No Child Left Behind law enacted in the early 2000s. Those tests are meant to assess how proficient students are in a number of categories, such as math and reading, based on students' grade level.

NCLB regulations and the law's successor, the Every Student Succeeds Act, put standardized testing in place to give school districts benchmarks on their students' progress and to set further education goals for the nation's student body.

Yet federal education requirements, specifically state standardized testing, have repeatedly come under fire over the years. Educators and education experts have pointed out numerous issues with the standardized testing process, causing them to question how effective those tests really are.

For example, districts often go to great lengths to satisfy standardized testing requirements, which educators say take away from the test's effectiveness.

"If we're held accountable to a standardized test but haven't had time to put the pieces in place, is that really a reflection of what we're doing?" said Gwen Walz, assessment coordinator for Mankato Area Public Schools.

Mankato officials say giving districts enough time to get the tests done and decreasing unfunded mandates would help the tests keep districts accountable. When lawmakers make changes to state testing requirements, it can cause massive headaches and delays across the state.

"It's a huge system that you have to make adjustments to," said Heather Mueller, teaching and learning director for Mankato Area Public Schools.

Minnesota's Department of Education temporarily suspended MCA testing in 2013 and 2015 due to issues third-party vendors had in administering computer-based tests to students. Those issues caused delays for school districts trying to get their students tested within a window of time mandated by the state.

Yet even when vendors are correctly giving tests to students, there are times when students simply aren't given the resources to take those tests. Computer labs throughout schools are routinely booked in the spring for MCA testing, which takes away from classroom time.

Districts often throw in numerous non-mandatory standardized tests as well to act as better benchmarks for student achievement, as MCAs and other, similar tests only happen once a year.

That can cause some students to stress out over testing, according to educators who spoke during the hearing.

Dana O'Brien, a sixth-grade teacher at Willow Creek Middle School in Rochester, told auditors one of her English language learning students purposefully got himself kicked out during the MCAs this year so he didn't have to take the test.

"He's sick and tired of testing because that's all he's doing at school," he said. "He's a brilliant student, he's making and doing a lot of growth and showing growth, but he's just fed up with the testing."

Another problem lies in how standardized testing data are used. Students take MCAs in the spring, but districts routinely have to wait several months before they get results.

By the time the state's Multiple Measurement Ratings — the framework Minnesota uses to examine MCA results — are released in the fall, it's far too late to use that data to determine how to help individual students learn better.

That's why educators see MCAs and other mandatory standardized tests as a single benchmark in planning overall district strategies, rather than a useful tool for student growth.

"It would be a disservice to evaluate a student's learning based in one data point on that MCA," said Renee Corneille, a middle school principal and assessment coordinator for St. Anthony New Brighton School District. "Because the standard error could cross that student over to a proficiency rate of either being not proficient to partially proficient. So that means on any given day, if I take that test, I could be five points higher and be proficient."

Lawmakers say defining the stakeholders behind the MCA test is a crucial part of the upcoming audit.

Rep. Connie Bernardy, DFL-New Brighton, requested state auditors review standardized testing in part because there are plenty of questions concerning state standardized testing as a whole. Bernardy believes it's important to gauge school districts' perspectives on the MCAs and other standardized tests to determine how well they're following testing guidelines.

"What's in their gut? How do they feel about this?" she said during the hearing. "That does influence how effective these tests are around the state."

The audit is expected to be released in early 2017, according to Kirchner.

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