How are our kids? The answer can’t be “I Don’t Know.” | Opinion

Why canceling the Minnesota Comprehensive Assessments this year is a bad idea.

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We simply cannot have an equitable and fair education system without good student data, and testing is essential in capturing that data. Uncovering disparities among students with good data is a fundamental first step in transforming our broken education system. 

Whether advocating for a more diverse teacher workforce, targeted school funding, or for equitable access to rigorous high school coursework, the bottom line is that we can’t adequately serve kids without a good understanding of where they are now, where we’re making progress, and what’s working to move the needle. Any way you cut it, Minnesota must invest in good data if we’re serious about creating an equitable and fair education system. 

This is especially important right now. We know that in 2019, Minnesota was home to startling education gaps, but also glimpses of promise in schools showing strong outcomes for students from historically underserved backgrounds. How did COVID-19 impact all of this? We have some idea that students are struggling, and that gaps have widened, based on anecdotes, school data and national trends — but the stories we’re hearing from families and schools are incredibly diverse.

To build clear, actionable, student-centered plans — and to learn along the way — we need meaningful data that allows us to compare what’s happening across Minnesota’s schools and diverse student groups.

In crisis mode, the U.S. Department of Education scrapped annual state tests last year for all states. It was a prudent approach at the time, but now, leaders need to plan to make standards-aligned assessments happen this year — a critical part of our state’s COVID-19 recovery plan.

Some test administrators, like Pearson, can now capture needed data without jeopardizing the health of students and families with an at-home assessment option. Now more than ever, it’s critical that we push forward to find solutions. With opportunities like this to be nimble, skipping another year would simply be a mistake, create larger gaps in our knowledge about how kids are doing, and be a disservice to students in the long run.

Why the MCAs?

The Minnesota Comprehensive Assessments, or MCAs, measure whether students have learned state standards for the year. Both the standards and the test are developed every few years by teams of local educators and other stakeholders. The MCAs are the only test aligned to these standards, and the only test administered statewide, which means that we can compare schools and students across the state.

Under No Child Left Behind, tests like the MCAs earned the toxic reputation of being “high-stakes,” with a fear that low scores lead to funding cuts to already struggling schools in low-income communities. While the reputation lives on, the reality shifted when the Obama administration did away with the punitive elements of the law and, instead, created a framework of support. Contrary to many beliefs, Minnesota does not withhold school funding, publicly shame educators, or punish school leaders based on the results of assessments. In fact, Minnesota schools with lower scores are given greater technical support and assistance, and they are asked to bring in their school community for things like needs assessments and improvement planning. These are all things we should be embracing and demanding more of. 

For students, taking the MCAs has potential benefits, like waiving remediation courses that keep kids out of college and placing students in personalized and rigorous coursework. Families receive scores and can help them advocate: Did the test just not go well, or are there red flags around learning to discuss with my school? Do these results match what educators have been reporting on my students? How can my school help provide additional supports? 

Students Can’t Wait

We know Minnesota students had a significant interruption in their learning due to COVID-19. But we don’t know whether there are pockets of success we should be studying and replicating, or areas of urgency we need to address immediately. We need to invest in educating students directly, and we need to measure what’s working to accelerate learning — both must happen.

From elementary students missing foundational literacy opportunities, to high schoolers missing key college prep work, our kids need an all-hands-on-deck approach. Researchers have estimated that the economic impact of potential learning loss and high school dropout rates could result in Gen Zers losing as much as $110 billion in annual earnings over their lifetime.

We need to collectively agree that stemming this should be our top priority, and that good data is a critical ingredient for better schools and just communities.