Commentary

Time to change how we assess students, schools — Opinion

October 1, 2021 6:00 am

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Minnesota is in full back-to-school mode, and just weeks earlier, the Minnesota Department of Education released the reading, math and science results from the 2021 Minnesota Comprehensive Assessments (MCAs). The MCAs showed what educators, families and policymakers already knew: existing opportunity and achievement disparities got worse during COVID-19.

As both a parent and an educator, I wonder: Do schools truly have the right information about for whom the system is working, and what needs to change? If we limit how we frame our current situation as one of deficit and loss, we will miss the opportunity to examine whether our large-scale, standardized assessments (like the MCAs) are actually giving educators and parents like me, along with students like my children, meaningful information — the information we all need.

The problem is that we live in an era in which standardized tests have too much influence on what happens in the classroom, rather than the dynamic and changing world around them. Rather than merely asking ourselves where students are at, we should first be asking where we want students to be. Our current, factory model of education reflects the limits of standardized tests and is not preparing students for an ever-changing landscape in which critical thinking, collaboration and design thinking will be required.

To make matters worse, too often the MCAs cause stress, anxiety and deficit thinking in our educators and young people. When school leaders disproportionately focus on the results of one test, the unintentional impact can be that students lose hope, feel far behind and feel doors of opportunity are closed to them. I’ve seen this kind of hopeless retreating and labeling school as irrelevant from more students than I can name.

Are there inequities? Yes. Are large-scale tests like the MCAs important in exposing disparities? Yes— but if we create an atmosphere where everyone feels like they are behind, we will have lost the moment to transform.

We must not frame this moment for our students, families and educators as “You have to learn it faster because you are behind and you have to catch up.” Let’s avoid the trap of constant crisis mitigation and embrace innovation that will set up our educational system so that all students achieve and succeed at high levels.

I know that critique of tests like MCAs isn’t new, and some dismiss this conversation as a mere tactic to avoid accountability. To be clear, I’m not opposed to accountability. The distinction I’m raising here is: Are we holding ourselves accountable to the right things?

We need to hold ourselves to ambitious goals that are rooted in the belief that all students can succeed rather than grounding ourselves in an unhelpful narrative about “being behind.” Assessment can give us powerful information when framed to help students, their teachers and teams understand strengths and identify next steps in achieving essential grade level standards and critical competencies.

It’s time to focus on developing meaningful student assessments that measure critical skills, and then use that assessment information in meaningful ways to empower our students, families and educators. We need to look at new assessment methods that move beyond a multiple choice item and capture critical thinking and creative problem-solving, collaboration and communication in methods that will set students up for success.

There are multiple ways to design and use different measures to understand and inform system effectiveness.

We need to stop talking about how to fix the current education system and start developing solutions that embrace critical skills and not compliance. It’s time to use assessment to transform our school systems, not bog them down with assessment data that leads to chasing outcomes that are irrelevant.

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Nicole Dimich
Nicole Dimich

Nicole Dimich is an educator and author who has worked with elementary and secondary educators, administrators and school districts across the globe. Dimich is also the executive director of a nonprofit called Thrive Ed and lives in the metro area.

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