Schools prep for springtime ritual of standardized testsby Tom Weber, Minnesota Public Radio
St. Paul, Minn. — While the sixth graders at Richfield Middle School were enjoying a robust game of Steal the Flag on Friday morning, Principal Stephen West was inside, away from all that nice weather, waiting for a custodian to arrive with a key.
Not even the school principal has the key to this nondescript room on the third floor.
This room contains boxes upon boxes of the Minnesota Comprehensive Assessment tests, the math and reading evaluations that third through eighth graders at this school will take next week.
The MCAs are a springtime ritual of standardized tests in Minnesota schools, and are so much a part of school culture that students like Richfield seventh-grader Sophie Lamo take them in stride.
"You kind of get nervous before you do it but then once you get into it, it gets easy," said Sophie, who prefers math over reading, but enjoys taking both test.
The annual tests are taking place this year amidst increased debate in Washington on how to change the federal No Child Left Behind law. That law, passed during the Bush Administration, requires high-stake tests every year in every state and mandates that every student in the nation be proficient in math and reading by 2014.
Critics of the law say it places too much emphasis on testing at the expense of learning. An evaluation of its effectiveness come soon as the Obama Administration has indicated its desire to change some parts of the law.
The administration last month outlined the kinds of changes it wants to make, including pushing that 2014 deadline back to 2020.
But while that debate rages in Washington, children still have to take the current tests.
Having students take the tests this year is like making sure the store stays open during remodeling, said Dirk Mattson, director of assessments and testing for the Minnesota Department of Education.
"There's so much changing at the federal level, and at the same time we have to make sure the tests that come out on Monday are of the highest quality and are doing what the state expects them to do, which is to accurately and fairly measure the standards set before them," Mattson said.
The message from Minnesota's education community is clear: These tests still matter, even if the federal law is going to change. One reason for that is that any new federal requirements will likely take a few years to implement, so the current system will remain in place until then.
But perhaps more importantly, the Obama Administration has indicated that it plans to continue the part of No Child Left Behind that requires testing. The proposed changes have more to do with how you use the results of those tests.
"Tests will still continue to play a roll, but whether we'll have to redesign our tests to meet the requirements of the new legislation, we don't know at this point," said University of Minnesota professor Mark Davison, former head of a now defunct state office for educational accountability.
Back at Richfield Middle School, Principal Stephen West said the tests are very useful to him in his quest to close the achievement gap -- the disparity between how well white students do compared to students of color.
"Our goal here in Richfield, our goal should be around the state of Minnesota, is to close the disparity that we see in subgroups -- with special needs kids, with black and brown kids," West said. "And that's what these tests really show."
West is one of many principals and schools leaders in Minnesota who put students through more testing than the state requires. The MCA test is a snapshot but it doesn't measure how much a student improves over the course of the year, he said.
That's why Richfield students also take the Northwest Evaluation Assessment test, given once in the fall and again in the spring to show whether a student has improved.
The spring version of that test will be given in Richfield next month, just after the MCA's are done.
- All Things Considered, 04/09/2010, 5:24 p.m.