With the presidential transition and the confirmation of new Education Secretary Miguel Cardona, there was some question about whether the administration of President Joe Biden would mandate the statewide testing required each year by the Elementary School and Education Act.
Last year, at the beginning of the pandemic, then Education Secretary Betsy DeVos granted waivers to states: “Students need to be focused on staying healthy and continuing to learn. Teachers need to be able to focus on remote learning and other adaptations. Neither students nor teachers need to be focused on high-stakes tests during this difficult time. Students are simply too unlikely to be able to perform their best in this environment.”
This year, both the Biden administration and the Minnesota Department of Education are singing a different tune. The Biden administration has embraced flexibility in administering the state assessments, but they are inflexible about whether the tests should be administered in the first place: “Parents need information on how their children are doing” and “assessment and accountability systems play an important role in advancing educational equity.”
Let’s begin with the administration’s second assertion. In reality, state assessments do two things:
1) They draw a line in the sand that defines proficiency — a line that is different for each state in each subject. Iowa takes a different test than Minnesota, which takes a different test than Florida.
2) They show how different population groups do in meeting that line, which defines the problems of inequity a certain way.
Neither of these “advance educational equity” as the Biden administration would have it. At best, it’s another attempt to define a problem already defined in a multitude of ways. To actually solve the problem of educational inequity, we have to do more beyond testing.
Meanwhile, the Minnesota Department of Education did flirt with allowing students to take the tests remotely. In the end, however, they announced that the Minnesota Comprehensive Assessment (MCA) and Minnesota Test of Academic Skills (MTAS) must be taken at school, even if the student is in distance learning.
Although there have been significant changes to the school environment in the past year — the development of local distance learning and hybrid programs, the Safe Learning Plan that established guidelines and allowed local districts to make local decisions to open or close, and the rollout of vaccines to teachers and staff — it is not clear to me that we are suddenly in a place where students can perform their best. Especially if they have to enter a completely different environment to take a test, as a distance learner would.
Although identifying how students are doing in their learning is important, the high-stakes requirements and nature of the MCAs and MTAS are not good or useful measurement tools in this regard. As a teacher and a parent, I have to recommend that students and parents take the power into their own hands and opt out of state testing this year.
In normal years, testing is a drag. This year was not normal.
I’m usually cautiously realistic about standardized testing. I take the opportunity to educate my students about how many standardized tests they will take in their lives, either to gain certification, join a graduate school program, join the armed forces, or even get a retail job. And one of the best things a standardized test does predict — better than performance in future reading, math or science classes — is your performance on future standardized tests. Performance on the MCA is highly correlated to performance on the ACT but doesn’t predict future college performance as accurately.
In fact, many schools and districts already require that students take a growth-orientated standardized test a few times each year, and these are also highly correlated to the MCA and ACT. Usually, the requirements for proctoring these tests are not as strict as the MCA; many schools have continued to test students in distance learning and hybrid this year, including both the school I taught at and the schools my children attend. As a result, I know roughly what scores to expect on the MCA for both my students and my children. Why do they have to spend upwards of three hours testing to confirm what I already know?
Instead, we could take this time to address what was really lost in this pandemic. Namely: time, mental health and community, and try to fix those problems instead of trying to diagnose even more. Students are failing more classes, attending fewer days and prioritizing school less in the pandemic. Forcing them to take a standardized test with predictable results is not going to help solve those problems.
Little drawback to opting out this year
In normal years, the Minnesota Department of Education has penalized schools that have a high number of students who do not take the tests, or “opt-outs.” Every student who opts out of a test is counted as “not proficient” in school accountability measures, which means that the school has a greater chance of being identified as needing support from the “Regional Centers of Excellence,” which really means more oversight and more hoops for schools to jump through. This year, the Minnesota Department of Education will hold schools blameless for students who miss the test due to COVID-19. Those students will not count for the school, but they won’t count against them either.
Additionally, in past years students themselves could be passed over for advanced classes or made to take remedial courses in college if they opt out. This is spelled out in the “Parent Guardian Guide and Refusal for Student Participation Form.” This year, however, because of COVID-19, no form is needed. In their announcement, the Minnesota Department of Education states “There are no consequences for your student or your family if they do not participate.” Students and parents should take advantage of this leeway.
I understand that school officials want a return to normalcy. But we also took this time to question which normal things to return to, and which to walk away from. I submit that statewide testing should be examined as one of those things to walk away from. It is not worth taking risks to participate in a system that works poorly in the best of times and has no ability to fix the problems we face today.