Standardized tests are needed this year more than ever | Opinion

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Commentaries and social media posts are circulating to encourage parents to “opt out” of student participation in the Minnesota Comprehensive Assessments (MCAs) scheduled for this spring. We urge parents to look past the rhetoric and examine how the information generated from state-administered tests is more important now than ever, after a difficult year of disruptions for students and families. 

The MCAs provide critical information on whether students are mastering grade-level curriculum in reading, math and science. While no test is perfect, the MCAs align directly with Minnesota’s K-12 standards and track to college and career readiness. For these reasons, the MCAs help state leaders and school leaders gather necessary data to better understand learning gaps, develop academic and socio-emotional supports, and fund interventions that will help students succeed. 

The Biden Administration and Minnesota state leaders have recognized the importance of the MCAs and have committed to testing this year. Now, school and system leaders should encourage testing as a critical strategy to ensure students bounce back from the pandemic, and so leaders can equitably allocate resources so students most impacted by learning loss have the support and commitment to get back on track. Here’s why this is important: 

Next fall will be different – schools need to know what to do.

Most students were in distance learning for at least some portion of this school year, which has significantly impacted student learning and mental health. Most students will be returning to classrooms this fall, and schools, teachers and families will be best positioned if they understand students’ learning gaps — or what instructional innovations during the pandemic paid off. 

The MCAs are one tool in a toolbox for school leaders to understand the current academic health of their school population. And, broadly, we need data that is comparable across schools, districts and demographics to identify what is working that we should seek to replicate. State assessment data will give policymakers evidence to show the impact of COVID-19 on student learning and ensure schools and districts receive the resources they need.

Information builds parent engagement.

More than ever, parents are engaged in their children’s learning. (And for some, the MCAs may not even be on their minds this year, given the challenges many families have endured.) During the pandemic, many students were in distance or hybrid learning models for several months to an entire year. Students were learning from home while many parents were working from home and monitoring progress. As a result, parents have newfound insight into what and how their children learn. With that insight, parents are looking for even more information about how and what their children are learning. 

A recent poll from the University of Chicago Harris School of Public Policy and the Associated Press found that 69% of parents are concerned that their children will face setbacks in their education because of the pandemic. Parents are engaged and ready to help, and the MCAs are the leading tool that help parents understand how their children are progressing on academic goals. While work is ongoing to make sure that information is accessible and relevant for families, MCA data equips parents with information to ask questions, partner with teachers and be more engaged than ever before. 

Testing measures education inequity.

The pandemic has widened and exacerbated education disparities, and the first step in addressing this is to measure it. The playing field for disadvantaged students was already uneven — comparable data from state testing helps level that field. We need more information about what students of color and students from low-income backgrounds have learned, not less. Even before the pandemic, underserved students in Minnesota were given fewer high-quality educational opportunities, missing out on preparation for college and careers. COVID-19 has increased these disparities and could have profound, long-term impacts on students and the health of Minnesota’s economy. 

In this time of disruption, assessment data helps ensure that every student is not only counted but counts and can receive the education they need to be on track for success in college and careers. And it’s imperative that school communities and decision-makers use MCA data as an input to effectively and equitably allocate the influx of COVID-19 relief dollars for K-12 education.

We test because we care about students’ futures

The MCAs measure student progress on benchmarks aligned to college and career readiness. Early reading is one of these critical benchmarks — the state administers reading MCAs so we have information about students reading proficiency starting in third grade. For a third-grade student who was already a year behind on reading, another lost year means they are unlikely to ever catch up. Struggling readers could enter middle schools next fall, and without testing data from the past two years, schools won’t have the best information possible about how to help students excel.   

The correlation between reading proficiency and future trajectory is clear: If students are not reading well by the end of third grade, their likelihood of graduating and attending college both drop. Testing helps identify problem spots so that we can deploy strategies and interventions. This includes, for example, reading supports this summer, access to tutors and tailored interventions next school year. 

We test because we care about Minnesota’s future.

The impact of learning loss on Minnesota’s future could be dire. A recent McKinsey study estimates that students could lose between $60,000 and $80,000 in lifetime earnings due to lost academic instruction. Multiply that across a generation of students, and the impact of learning loss on their futures and Minnesota’s future is stark. Minnesota is positioned for economic growth coming out of the pandemic if we can bring everyone along. 

Ensuring that all children are ready for bright futures starts with helping them recover from the pandemic. Now is the time to commit to getting Minnesota’s students back on track for success in college, careers and life. 

The pandemic has taken a heavy toll on all of us, adults and children alike. But when it comes to our schools and our state’s future, it’s time to put students first.

The following people also contributed to this commentary: Jennifer Stern, CEO, Great MN Schools; Paula Cole, executive director, Educators for Excellence Minnesota;  Tonya Draughn, Uplift MN; Doug Loon, president, MN Chamber of Commerce; Rashad Turner, Founder, president and executive eirector, Minnesota Parent Union; Josh Crosson, executive eirector, Ed Allies. 

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Khulia Pringle
Khulia Pringle

Khulia Pringle is an activist with brightbeam. She organizes and mobilizes around issues that disproportionately affect low-income individuals and students of color.

Charlie Weaver
Charlie Weaver

Mr. Weaver is the executive director of the Minnesota Business Partnership, a group of more than 120 CEOs and senior executives from Minnesota's largest employers.