Changing the exam

Published 6:01 am Monday, October 21, 2013

John Alberts, Austin Public Schools Education Services Director, stands on some stairs in I.J. Holton Intermediate School. Alberts is in charge of looking over standardized test data and forwarding that information on to the schools. Eric Johnson/

John Alberts, Austin Public Schools Education Services Director, stands on some stairs in I.J. Holton Intermediate School. Alberts is in charge of looking over standardized test data and forwarding that information on to the schools. Eric Johnson/

The routine is the same every year.

Education Services Director John Alberts will receive and look over the latest standardized testing data from the Minnesota Department of Education, and determine how well Austin Public Schools did for the year. He passes that information along to schools, where principals and staff members review the scores. The district looks at the data, reviews curriculum programs, and moves on to the next round of Minnesota Comprehensive Assessments.

It’s the same old schedule, though that’s about the only thing that stays constant about high-stakes testing. For years, educators and the public have put extra emphasis on state standardized tests, but education experts, teachers and even parents are turning away from state testing as the answer to classroom learning.

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“It’s nice to have that accountability measure for the public, but in terms of system improvement, districts then have to do something else,” Alberts said.

Changes to the MCA, to state standards and even the national educational approach have Austin Public Schools and districts across the nation downplaying the results of high stakes, statewide comprehensive testing associated with the federal No Child Left Behind education law. Though U.S. schools have undergone accountability testing for decades, school districts like Austin are turning to smaller, “diagnostic” tests to find solutions to educational problems.

 The rise in testing

Though accountability testing has been around in some form since the 1960s, states and school districts didn’t seriously emphasize high-stakes testing until former President George W. Bush signed a reauthorized version of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, commonly referred to as “No Child Left Behind,” in 2001. New federal mandates tied Title 1 government funding, meant for underprivileged students, to once-a-year standardized tests given to students throughout the nation.

Yet there were problems with the law’s execution. No Child Left Behind provided a framework rather than specific standards to uphold, which meant each state decides what standards to teach and how to benchmark those standards, or how to figure out whether students were proficient in certain subjects like math and English.

What’s more, No Child Left Behind was designed to hold states to a proficiency timeline. Once states figured out what they wanted students to know, state officials had to decide how to grade for those standards and bring all students up to snuff by the end of the school year.

The results were disastrous for many school districts, as schools that received federal funding were subject to Adequate Yearly Progress punishments if their students couldn’t keep increasing scores on state standardized tests.

Austin is no stranger to AYP woes. The district has not made overall AYP for several years, and some schools, such as Sumner and Neveln Elementary schools, failed to make overall AYP for several years in a row, which could have meant serious repercussions for the school. Under the old AYP guidelines, if a school that received Title 1 funding failed to make overall AYP for five years, school officials had to make a plan to restructure the school, and needed to implement that plan if the school’s students failed for six years straight.

Yet the AYP benchmark did little to show student progress, according to educators. It was a rough indication of where students were on one particular day, but it didn’t tell educators how students were growing in the classroom. Changing tests and test formats throughout the years haven’t helped educators keep decent growth data either — state Department of Education Commissioner Brenda Cassellius cautioned residents that state math scores were going to drop this year due to a change in the MCA math test.

“Anytime a new test based on new standards is given, a drop in scores is to be expected,” Cassellius said in August.

Many districts have turned to so-called diagnostics exams — really just standardized tests taken at regular intervals — to better determine how well students are meeting standards.

More tests, better data?

Austin has used tests like the ScanTron to measure overall student learning for several years, with ScanTron testing in place since 2005. The tests, taken in the fall, winter and spring, help determine how students are keeping track of all the information they pick up over the school year.

“The MCAs really, although they’re getting better, have been just a point-in-time achievement level rather than a diagnostic exam,” Superintendent David Krenz said.

ScanTron data is more useful in identifying trends in Austin’s curriculum, as district officials can see where a majority of students are strong in one particular lesson but need more help in another.

In addition, Austin High School is getting into standardized testing. AHS offered free ACT exams to all juniors and many seniors earlier this year to encourage and to measure high schoolers’ college readiness.

Austin High School principal Brad Bergstrom said last month all eligible students will take the ACT test next year, including the writing portion. The increased student participation will allow district officials to better gauge an Austin student’s college and career readiness, as well as allow students to gauge where their strengths are. What’s more, AHS staff want to use the school’s ACT data to see how Austin compares to high schools across the nation.

“This is a step in the right direction,” Bergstrom said.

At the same time, district officials are watching to make sure they don’t give students too many tests. Third- through eighth-graders already take MCAs each year, while sophomores take the MCA English test and juniors take the MCA math test. In addition, students across the district are taking ScanTron tests along with their regular exams. Alberts said Austin is looking into whether the district can streamline some of its testing practices to still keep the same level of useful data on student learning.

“A lot of it is diagnostic and necessary, but we’re always cognizant of this tension between making sure that we understand how students are performing and the concept of … are we over-testing students in some ways,” Alberts said.

Future changes

Standardized testing has changed over the past few years, however, and the district will see a lot more changes coming over the next few years.

Federal officials began to give states waivers from AYP mandates in 2012, after years of educator complaints and struggles to streamline data between states. Minnesota was among the first states to opt out of AYP in February of last year in favor of its own testing system. In all, 32 states have received waivers thus far.

Minnesota created the Multiple Measurement Ratings system, which determines school progress based on several factors, from graduation rates and testing scores to growth measurements and achievement gaps between white and nonwhite or non-privileged students. School districts across the state are in their second year of MMR data, though state officials provided an initial benchmark by combining 2010 and 2011 MCA test scores.

In addition, the Common Core Standards developed by education officials and passed by Congress will be in effect across the country by 2015, though some states are already opting out of them. Minnesota has accepted the English Common Core standards but opted out of the math standards in 2010, as state officials found the math standards already in place to be more rigorous.

Accountability testing isn’t going away any time soon, as President Barack Obama has signaled over the years his continued support of standardized testing and accountability standards.

With so much constantly changing, school districts like Austin will continue to use smaller standardized tests.

“That has really helped us in terms of finding the areas that our students have strengths and areas that our students need growth,” Krenz said.