A Better Education Accountability System
There are two things wrong with the MCA II, which is Minnesota's high stakes standardized test. First, it doesn't tell parents and teachers what they need to know about student academic achievement. Second, through the No Child Left Behind law, the test data is used to punish schools, thereby creating an atmosphere where schools jump through hoops to avoid punishment rather than simply educating students.
Lawmakers in Wisconsin have done away with the first problem. Minnesota might follow. The second problem is in the hands of Congress, and two members of the Minnesota delegation might be in a position to fix it.
The problems come from NCLB, which requires schools to test student achievement every year. If not enough students pass the test, the school fails and faces an escalating series of punishments. About half of all Minnesota schools failed to pass the test last year. About 10 have reached the maximum punishment, called "restructuring."
Clearly the students in half of Minnesota's schools are not poorly educated, nor are half the teachers in Minnesota unable to perform their duties. The problem is the test and the ridiculous measures of "accountability" in NCLB.
To determine if schools meet adequate yearly progress, NCLB requires a grade-level standardized test like the MCA II. However, the MCA II isn't adaptive, which means it doesn't show if students are performing above or below grade level. Also, the test is taken in the spring of one school year, yet results aren't known until the beginning of the next school year, making the results virtually useless to teachers.
That's why Wisconsin is doing away with its' high stakes test. Instead, it will offer an adaptive, computerized test that can be offered several times during the year. Because it is computerized, teachers will get results back within 72 hours. Because it will be offered several times during the year, teachers will be able to accurately track student growth. Because it is adaptive, teachers will know if a student has capabilities well above or below grade average.
David Heistad, the Executive Director of Research and Evaluation for Minneapolis Public Schools, suggested a Minnesota version of this test might work this way: The first section of questions would provide a standardized test score for the student that would meet NCLB requirements. Then the test would get progressively easier or difficult depending on the ability of the student, which would inform teachers and parents about the necessity of remediation or acceleration for the child's education.
Dirk Mattson, the Director for Assessment and Testing at the Minnesota Department of Education, said a move in this direction "takes assessments to another level of sophistication." He said Minnesota has looked at such an assessment for several years and is headed in the same direction as Wisconsin.
Mattson said Minnesota's testing situation is clouded because the MCA II is now used for the GRAD tests in grades 9, 10 and 11, which determine if a student can receive a diploma. But for tests in grades 3 through 8, the state is moving forward with a computerized version of the MCA II that can be adaptive. The math test will go online in spring of 2011, Mattson said. The reading test is aimed at the 2013-14 school year. Science and writing tests are more problematic and will take some time to figure out, he said.
The elephant in the room is the pending NCLB reauthorization in Congress. What form the 2002 law takes will affect the future of the MCA II. Second district Rep. John Kline is the ranking member of the House Committee on Education and Labor, while Sen. Al Franken sits on the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions. Both will have a say on what requirements states must meet in NCLB's future.
The MCA II is a faulty assessment. It doesn't give a broad look at student needs for remediation or acceleration. It doesn't give timely results. Its use as a tool for punishment under NCLB is grotesque.
An adaptive, computerized test offered several times during the school year is the way to go. Wisconsin has taken that step. Minnesota should follow.