Problems plagued latest Minnesota statewide testing

By Joe Nathan

It’s not surprising that some Minnesota educators are angry about how high-stakes MCA testing operated during the past year and how some newspapers reported results. The rules changed, there were statewide computer “freezes” caused by problems with the testing company’s technology, and one of the state’s tests was much harder. Whether from suburbs like Hopkins, Minnetonka or Stillwater or high-performing urban charters like Friendship Academy, I have never heard such frustration. It’s time to revise how we are assessing students.
Minnetonka Superintendent Dennis Peterson concluded: “The frustration of students in being taken out of tests by the system throughout the testing period had a profound impact on their performance in Minnetonka. … Many students were not able to show what they know about math on the MCA test due to circumstances beyond their control and that of the district.”
John Schultz, Hopkins superintendent, told me: “A majority of Hopkins students needed to restart their testing at least once. … The number of restarts some students needed to make ranged from two to 17 times. The online testing interruptions most often impacted our elementary students in grades 3-6. Our experience in testing young children leads me to believe that the frequent interruptions in the online testing may have caused our young students additional anxiety, frustration and lack of engagement in the task.”
Friendship Academy topped the Star Tribune’s “Beat the Odds” list of public schools with a high percentage of low-income students who scored well on the math test. Seventy-two percent of its students were proficient on the elementary math test, 11 points higher than the state average. But there were many problems with the online reading test. Datrica Chukwu, the school’s academic director told me that the school’s students found the continued “computer freezing” to be “incredibly disruptive and frustrating.”
Bloomington, Edina and Farmington school districts told me that they did not think computer problems had an impact on their tests.
Anoka-Hennepin experienced considerable progress, especially with high school math.
The Minnesota Department of Education commissioned a study to see if computer slowdowns and crashes had a statewide impact. The report said “no.”
But I think the experience of students suggests that the answer in some places was “yes.”
In the past three years, both Minnesota’s statewide reading and math tests have been made harder to align with national standards. This happened a few years ago with the state’s math test, and it happened last year with Minnesota’s reading test. That’s not widely understood.
This is a bit like measuring how many youngsters can jump over a hurdle that is 2 feet high, and then the next year comparing how many youngsters can jump over a hurdle that is 5 feet high.
In an interview, Minnesota Commissioner of Education Brenda Cassellius noted, “Our kids did not get dumber overnight,” she said. She pointed out that Minnesota’s math scores, on average, are higher than they were two years ago, the first year of the new, harder exam. Moreover, there was a major change in testing procedures from 2011-12 to 2012-13. Students were allowed to take the statewide test up to three times in 2011-12, and districts could count their best score. This year, students could take the tests only once. Practice doesn’t always produce perfection – but it often produces improvement.
Nationally known University of Minnesota evaluation expert Karen Seashore Louis told me, “It is entirely possible that the school results were not affected, but with a high-stakes (test) any disruption puts the affected students in a tough position, at minimum making them more anxious and at maximum making them less able to perform to their true ability.”
Two of the state’s largest daily papers had large, top-of-the-page headlines that proclaimed, “State reading scores plummet” (Star Tribune) and “Minnesota math, reading scores slip”(Pioneer Press). Headlines must be short. But students and schools deserve a more comprehensive summary.
Commissioner Cassellius wisely does not want any more changes in state standards. But we also need a broader array of information about what students are learning. Some of the most important things can’t be measured by not-always-reliable online tests.

Joe Nathan, formerly a Minnesota public school teacher and administrator, directs the Center for School Change. Reactions welcome, [email protected]