Not Proficient? Minnesota Attempts to Thwart Standardized Testing Opt Outs

April 16, 2018

Q: What’s more jaw-dropping than a blizzard in April? 

A: The continued pressure tactics being used against Minnesota families who want to opt their children out of the high stakes Minnesota Comprehensive Assessment (MCA) standardized tests.

These pressure tactics include the lingering, erroneous threat that students who do not take the annual MCAs will be labeled as “not proficient” just for refusing to comply. Some parents even believe that their children, if they refuse to take the MCAs, will also be labeled as special education students. This is not legally possible, since there is a rigorous process to have a child identified as in need of special education services, but it is evidence of the fear-mongering going on now, as the state’s testing season hits full swing.

New Parent Refusal Form Spells Trouble

In 2017, under the guidance of right-leaning lobbyist groups in Minnesota, including the Minnesota Business Partnership, the state legislature reportedly pressured the Minnesota Department of Education (MDE) to come up with a new Parent Refusal form. This is the form that parents are asked (but not required) to fill out if they would like to opt their children out of the MCA tests, given each spring in grades 3-8 and again in high school.

MDE’s opt out form includes language that seems purposefully misleading, if not downright threatening. First, the form included this message for parents:

I understand that by signing this form, my student will receive a score of “not proficient”

MDE then received a great deal of push back against this scare tactic, with parents, teachers and other interested parties calling or emailing them for the truth. Can students who do not take the tests actually be labeled “not proficient”? 

The answer is no. And so the MDE revised its form in the fall of 2017 and added a mildly qualifying bit of info: 

I understand that by signing this form, my student will be counted as “not proficient” for the purpose of school and district accountability….

Still confused? Many parents are. MDE has admitted as much. In an April 4 Assessment Update newsletter, MDE acknowledged that the opaque message shift is not working:

The key change was in the language surrounding the term “not proficient.” Despite the changes to the form, there has been some confusion across the state regarding what will appear on the Individual Student Report (ISR) when a parent refusal is indicated. The student will not receive a score or a message of “not proficient” on their ISR; rather, the ISR will indicate, “[Student Name] did not participate in the test” and include an explanation that the reason the student was not tested was due to a parent refusal (REF-P).

To clarify, students who opt out of the MCA tests “will not receive a score or message of ‘not proficient.'” And, in truth, MCA tests are not supposed to drive high stakes decision-making, at the school or state level. But of course, they do.

Opting Out Means Missing Advanced Classes?

Parents have the legal right to opt their children out of standardized testing, full stop. Despite attempts to scare parents into compliance, there is nothing schools can do to force students to take the MCAs. Unless, of course, they venture into educational malpractice by tying tests to such things as class trips, seats in advanced courses, the right to take music or art and so on.

Just yesterday, a friend sent me a plaintive text message. Hey, it said, my kid’s school is telling me that if he opts out of the MCAs, he won’t be able to take Honors Math next year.

This is wrong, but sadly not unusual. A 2017 article by education researcher, Christopher Tienken, makes this point:

Every year, policymakers across the U.S. make life-changing decisions based on the results of standardized tests. 

These high-stakes decisions include, but are not limited to, student promotion to the next grade level, student eligibility to participate in advanced coursework, eligibility to graduate high school and teacher tenure. In 40 states, teachers are evaluated in part based on the results from student standardized tests, as are school administrators in almost 30 states.

But Tienken, who is a professor at Seton Hall University, has found that “the outcomes of standardized tests don’t reflect the quality of instruction, as they’re intended to.” He and his colleagues conducted an extensive review of standardized test results in multiple states and concluded that there are likely “serious flaws built into our education accountability systems and the decisions about educators and students made within those systems.”

Standardized Tests Don’t Actually Measure Proficiency

That’s because Tienken and his fellow researchers were able to show that, by using demographic data such as family income level, they could accurately “predict the percent of students who scored proficient or above in 75 percent of the schools we sampled.” The conclusion? Standardized test scores say more about where a student lives than what kind of instruction he or she is getting.

And the tests are simply not designed to measure growth or proficiency, though that is the storyline we have all been sold. More from Tienken’s article:

Though some proponents of standardized assessment claim that scores can be used to measure improvement, we’ve found that there’s simply too much noise. Changes in test scores from year to year can be attributed to normal growth over the school year, whether the student had a bad day or feels sick or tired, computer malfunctions, or other unrelated factors.

According to the technical manuals published by the creators of standardized assessments, none of the tests currently in use to judge teacher or school administrator effectiveness or student achievement have been validated for those uses…The tests are simply not designed to diagnose learning. They are simply monitoring devices, as evidenced by their technical reports.

The bottom line is this: Whether you’re trying to measure proficiency or growth, standardized tests are not the answer.

Students across Minnesota  are right now being subjected to high stakes standardized testing that limits, rather than expands, their educational horizons. Often, it is students of color and marginalized kids that are used as the justification for all of this ultimately pointless testing. Don’t opt out, parents are warned. If you do, you will be depriving the state of evidence that students of color are not achieving as well as their white peers.

This point of view was offered again recently by education reform lobbyist, Daniel Sellers. In a  St. Paul Pioneer Press article about the “not proficient” dust-up. Sellers, insists, as reformers frequently do, that it is only white, wealthy families who opt out of standardized testing. When they do, he contends, they “hurt students of color by diverting the state’s resources.”

That’s because opt outs will now be counted in the not proficient category of a school, theoretically causing extra resources to be sent to those schools. But this is little more than a laughable scenario intended to shut down the conversation. The Minnesota Department of Education uses far more than MCA scores (which would include the number of opt outs) to decide which schools are truly “low performing” and in need of extra resources.

Testing Costs A Lot

It is more accurate to say that testing diverts the state’s resources away from the schools and students most in need. Standardized tests cost Minnesota over $19 million last year and the federal government only covered one-third of that tab. We don’t have enough school counselors or mental health support, but we’ve got plenty of money to subject students to high stakes data gathering.

We also don’t have enough money to fully fund special education or English language instruction. That means big districts like Minneapolis have to dip into their general fund budgets to cover these essential and mandated services. In Minneapolis this year, this deficit has added up to around $60 million. (That is almost twice the size of the budget deficit MPS is currently wrestling with.)

But we have plenty of money for testing. And it is not just a once per year event. Many students attend schools whose whole identity is built around test scores and data collection. Last week, I sat in on a board meeting at a highly segregated charter school in Minneapolis. I was there to listen and observe, and what I saw, right off the bat, was a whole meeting,  almost, devoted to talk about test scores and whether or not students were “outperforming” the district, the state, or the odds set against them.

We made sure to give the students bottled water and peppermint candy, a school administrator told the board, because that gets their brains going for all the testing they do.

Robotics Before Testing?

There was a fascinating article in the Minneapolis Star Tribune yesterday, profiling a mighty robotics team from tiny Greenbush, Minnesota. Robotics is a competitive but highly cooperative endeavor, where groups of kids work together to build robots and solve engineering problems. The Greenbush team is a knock out, winning competitions despite having a high school enrollment of just 135 students.Image result for robotics

Running a robotics team is very expensive; the article says it can cost up to $50,000 per year for supplies, travel and fees. But what the kids get out of it is this: an education that matters. Building robots alongside teammates “‘prepares the students and employees of tomorrow with real, practical skills that are relevant,'” according to Paul Marvin, CEO of Marvin Windows and father of three kids who do robotics.

Could anyone say the same thing about test prep and deep data dives into standardized test scores?

In the article, Marvin, who also lives and works in rural Minnesota, further describes the value of robotics. Kids involved in it have to make presentations, do their own marketing, and, of course, tons of collaborative problem-solving. It is, Marvin states, a “microcosm of the business world.”

This past week, I also toured a private school in my neighborhood. Again, I was there to listen and observe. The students at the school do take the NWEA or MAP test, which is purported to measure growth, but that’s it. Otherwise, they are evaluated through projects and portfolios of their work, along with information gleaned from frequent parent-teacher-student conferences.

These kids exit 8th grade as very self-assured, self-aware students who know how to advocate for themselves, according to the teachers present for the school tour. They also attend a school that costs, up front, $14,000 per year—far more than the per-pupil average for public school kids in Minnesota. If we sent far less of our public money to for-profit testing companies, then perhaps we could do more to make sure all kids are given the time and space needed to find their own passion and purpose.

Standardized Tests: An Effective Racist Weapon?

So why the hostile, threatening language around opting out in Minnesota? It’s clear that the fear tactics being deployed (opt out and your kid won’t get into advanced math) are working. But why? What is the end game? If standardized test scores were the path to greater opportunity for marginalized students, particularly students of color, then wouldn’t we be there by now? 

Consider the words of Ibram X. Kendi, author of Stamped From the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America:

At 100-years-young this year, standardized tests have come to literally embody the American doors of opportunity, admitting and barring people from the highest ranked schools, colleges, graduate schools, professions, and jobs. Standardized tests have become the most effective racist weapon ever devised to objectively degrade Black minds and legally exclude their bodies. However, some of the greatest defenders of standardized testing are civil rights leaders, who rely on the testing data in their well-meaning lobbying efforts for greater accountability and resources.

But what if, all along, our well-meaning efforts at closing the achievement gap has been opening the door to racist ideas? What if different environments actually cause different kinds of achievement rather than different levels of achievement? What if the intellect of a poor, low testing Black child in a poor Black school is different—and not inferior—to the intellect of a rich, high-testing White child in a rich White school? What if the way we measure intelligence shows not only our racism but our elitism?

–Ibram X. Kendi, October 2017,“Why the Achievement Gap is a Racist Idea”

Further reading:

  1. “The Corporate Plan to Groom U.S. Kids for Servitude by Wiping Out Public Schools” offers a look at why “the corporate-driven war on public schools is not just about money, but also about a vision of society.” 
  2.  “Why You Can Boycott Standardized Tests without Fear of Federal Penalties to Your School” from Fair Test http://www.fairtest.org/why-you-can-boycott-testing-without-fear.  
  3. Opt Out Minnesota Facebook page.
  4. Why are More American Teenagers Suffering From Anxiety?

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3 thoughts on “Not Proficient? Minnesota Attempts to Thwart Standardized Testing Opt Outs

  1. Stef

    When I told someone who administers the test that I refuse the tests for my children, she quickly replied that this hurts the school. They were told this in their training.
    The state department needs to fix their web page and if this is the language they are using for test administrators that is a HUGE problem as well.
    So frustrating.
    So the online opt out form is poorly worded to intimidate but the principal also said i had to fill out even though I sent a refusal letter.
    Their is also an informational sheet for parents on the state page that says all students are required to take the test…..
    Thanks for this information!!! MUCH appreciated!

  2. Jamie Sager

    So last year I did the opt out for my 6th grade daughter. After testing was done, every student who improved their score was able to take a trip to the lake for the day. My daughter had to stay back because she didn’t take the test!
    So by reading this its my understanding that they can’t tie the test into “rewards” like a field trip?

    1. sarah.lahm@gmail.com Post author

      You have the legal right to opt your child out of the MCA tests. Your child’s school should not be punishing either you or her for opting out and exercising your legal right to do so, and to advocate for your kid.

      This is really a sad state of affairs. You may want to insist that the school offers your child an alternative assignment or assessment, and insist that she not be excluded from the class trip. I believe you should be able to count on the MN Department of Education for back up on this, as they have said publicly that standardized tests should not be tied to either test prep or these kinds of high stakes consequences.

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