It’s time to find an alternative to Minnesota’s current standardized testing regime | Opinion

Is "Nope!" an answer? Getty Images.

The pandemic has added a sense of urgency to the long-standing debate about the value of standardized testing in public schools.  

Last year Minnesota students were granted a reprieve as distance learning swept through the state, and we all tried to get our bearings. This year we have been told that the Minnesota Comprehensive Assessments are back on, despite the fact that many students are still learning from home and many others are newly adjusting to the realities of being back in buildings during an ongoing global health crisis.  

But we need to test, right? How else can we measure what students have learned or lost during the past year?  

 As it turns out, the MCA is not the only way.   

When I began teaching in Minnesota at the start of the millennium we did not yet worship at the altar of standardized tests. We did not associate spring rains, green shoots, and the return of migrating birds with manila envelopes of sharpened No. 2 pencils and answer documents with rows and columns of empty bubbles. Learning was not measured by the gods of A, B, C or D. At least not the way it is today. 

Any teacher will tell you that one-size-fits-all doesn’t work in the classroom. That’s true in terms of how individual students process information, and in how they are best able to demonstrate what they have learned. Differentiation is the best way to meet students where they are at and move them forward. Standardization is the opposite.   

President George W. Bush ushered in the era of standardized, corporatized school systems that we have been living in ever since. At this point, we have spent so long living under the false promise of  “accountability” that many of us — even those working in education — cannot remember that there are other, better ways to measure students’ growth.  

And student growth does need to be measured. As a teacher, I absolutely want data that indicates the progress that my students are making — or not making — toward grade level proficiency in reading and math. I want to know which specific areas are strengths and which areas need extra attention and support. I want to know whether the curricular materials and classroom strategies that I’m using are moving my students closer to where they need to be. I also want the leadership at my school and in my district to know this information, so that resources are allocated in such a way to provide for my students’ needs. Same goes for lawmakers. 

The fact remains, however, that the MCA are not the best tool for the job. 

Student learning is being measured all the time, both formally and informally. Teachers are professionals who design standards-based assignments and assessments. We are constantly gauging our students’ comprehension and performance, and we adjust instruction accordingly. This classroom-level assessment is the most valuable type of assessment on a practical level, the type that has an immediate effect on student outcomes.  

Yet, we realize that simply looking at a student’s report card is not always an accurate measure of how well they know the grade-level material. Some students work incredibly hard, hand in every assignment, but truly struggle to understand the material. Others grasp the material easily but are unmotivated to do the work. Issues of racial, economic, and linguistic equity come into play. Many students have cognitive differences. Others carry trauma. 

These same factors influence outcomes on standardized tests, such as the MCA. Why then, is the MCA given such outsize power to judge students, schools, and entire districts?  

There are other assessments that measure students’ reading and math proficiency in similar, but more accurate, ways. One example is the FastBridge test. Generally, each of these tests — reading and math — takes a student 45 minutes or less to complete, and teachers have the results the next day with individual results for each student. This does not happen with MCA tests. MCA tests take up to 10 hours and don’t report scores until August. 

Drawn-out standardized tests administered to all students — even like the ones I teach who are just starting to learn English — have long felt to me like a form of educational malpractice. FastBridge or other similar assessments could provide a common measure for stakeholders from across the state to compare results without forcing students and teachers to lose so much time to the MCA that gives us stale, biased data.

In this year of upheaval, students need as much instructional and supported work time as we can possibly provide, but they also need social and emotional support from teachers and staff. That is definitely not what they receive in a silent room, staring at their screens for hours upon hours and clicking ovals: A, B, C or D.

Education has had to re-invent itself during the pandemic. I am more than ready to dismantle the altar of the MCA and re-invent an assessment structure that considers multiple measures, in order to develop a more well-rounded picture of student strengths and areas for growth. 

The author’s views on standardized testing are hers and do not necessarily represent the views of her employer.