Austin test scores drive change

Published 8:45 am Friday, October 8, 2010

Sumner Elementary fifth-graders Ashley Huehn and Ojulu Cham work on a math problem in Eric Kossoris's math class Thursday afternoon. - Eric Johnson/

Talk to an educator about state comprehensive testing and they’ll all chime in their two cents.

It’s not a fair indicator, they’ll say. It doesn’t compare apples to apples, they’ll exclaim. The tests vary too much from one year to the next, they’ll cry. Despite their criticism, educators across the state, including the ones in Austin Public Schools, have learned to live with the Minnesota Comprehensive Assessment tests, which are based on No Child Left Behind standards and determine how much Title I funding a school can receive.

Because the district failed to make Adequate Yearly Progress across the board on state tests, the district is addressing testing concerns the only way it knows how: to improve the curriculum as it comes up for debate.

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Austin Public Schools is on a six-year curriculum cycle, meaning every year district officials review a certain part of its total curriculum, such as math, science, social studies, etc. The district reviews everything about the curriculum; subject textbooks, lesson goals, teaching materials and other considerations are all up for debate. During their review, the district takes into account many different educational references, such as state comprehensive testing data like the MCA II results, Gates-MacGinitie reading test data and ACT scores, among others.

After discussing all possible improvements to death, the district will ultimately update its curriculum accordingly. The process, spearheaded by John Alberts, the district’s director of Educational Services, costs about $210,000 every year to exchange one type of curriculum over another.

Not that Austin students necessarily need curriculum changes: Six out of the district’s eight schools made Adequate Yearly Progress goals on the math portion of the state comprehensive tests this past year. Several, such as Sumner and Southgate Elementary Schools, met math progress goals across the board. Yet on an overall scale, Austin Public Schools is failing to consistently make total AYP goals year to year, a charge district officials say is unfair.

“I think accountability is good,” said Superintendent David Krenz. “I think we’ve tried to meet those needs.” Yet the struggle to get kids who may be lagging behind their peers from grade to grade takes an enormous amount of energy to do, to bring the student up to his peers.

According to Alberts, the MCA II tests are difficult to measure classroom success by because of how they are structured. The tests, which are part of No Child Left Behind-mandated initiatives, are designed to measure how well students catch up to what NCLB states are the minimum education guidelines for students from third grade through high school. A certain percentage of students, separated into several demographic groups, must do well on the tests in order for the district to make AYP goals, which increase from year to year.

In other words, the benchmarks for each student on these tests are raised every year, increasing by more and more until every school reaches these federally mandated levels. Each school in the state is expected to reach these guidelines by 2014, an expectation many educators and critics of NCLB say is unreasonable and highly unlikely. To add to the confusion, the MCA tests are rotated on cycles between MCA, MCA II and MCA III, according to Alberts.