Tag Archives: standardized testing

Opt Out Numbers in Minnesota High Schools Skyrocket

March 11, 2017

As testing season begins in full force across Minnesota, publicly available data from the state Department of Education indicates a striking trend: the number of high school juniors refusing to sit for the state and federally mandated MCA tests is growing–rapidly.

Sidebar: In order to qualify for federal Title funding, Minnesota is required to give annual, standardized tests (MCAs) to public school students in grades 3-8 and 10, for reading; grades 3-8 and 11 in math, and science in grades 5, 8 and once in high school (English Language Learners are given many additional ACCESS tests each year, K-12). Although the state is required to give the tests, parents and students in Minnesota have the right to refuse to participate in them.

The Monticello, MN schools recently canceled science in favor of MCA test prep

In 2016, 2,227 high school juniors opted out of the MCA tests statewide. That’s just a drop in the bucket, compared to the 55,975 students who did take it. But it is more than three times the number of eleventh grade students–694–who opted out of the MCAs in 2015. 

This is a startling jump, taking place in schools and cities as diverse as suburban St. Louis Park, rural Pine City and Minneapolis. (The examples below pertain only to the Math MCA tests for high school juniors.)

In 2016, ten Pine City juniors refused the MCA tests; that’s a small but significant bump up from the three students who refused the tests in 2015. At St. Louis Park High School in 2016, 66 juniors opted out. But in 2015, just one student refused the MCAs.

An eye-popping 209 juniors at Minneapolis’s Henry High School opted out of the math MCAs in 2016. That’s a huge leap from 2015, when just eleven students refused the tests. Only seven percent of Henry’s 1,100 students identify as white and eighty percent live in poverty, according to federal standards. This might help poke holes in the story that onlysuburban momsand white, wealthier kids are pushing the opt out movement. And, across town at Roosevelt High School, 98 juniors opted out of the math MCAs in 2016. Like Henry, Roosevelt is not a majority white school and almost seventy percent of its students qualify for free and reduced lunch.

Over at South High School–Minneapolis’s largest and most diverse–so few students took the MCAs in 2016 that there are simply blank spaces on the Department of Education’s spreadsheet for the school. That’s because, when fewer than ten students take the tests, the data has to be blocked out for privacy reasons. In 2015, 306 students–or nearly ninety percent of eligible juniors–at South did not take the tests. (The city’s Washburn High also had 81 MCA math test refusals in 2016; in 2015, there were eleven.)

Minneapolis’s two smaller high schools–Edison and North High schools–had very few opt outs in 2016 and 2015 (0 at North, both years), while Southwest High School has had large and growing numbers of opt outs–191 in 2015 and 251 in 2016. High schools in St. Paul are also reporting an increase–often from zero up to double digits–in the numbers of students refusing the tests, but the opt out movement appears to have more legs in Minneapolis.

Point of confusion: In Minnesota, districts can set their own graduation requirements, and, reportedly, some are putting MCA scores on high school transcripts to indicate whether or not a student is “college and career ready.” A student’s MCA scores can also be used, per Minnesota statute, as part of a course grade or as a way to try to avoid being placed in remedial classes in college. Students, however, still do not have to take the MCA tests (test refusal can be noted on a transcript as well). Most college-bound high school students undoubtedly choose to focus their energies on either the ACT or SAT test, even as more and more colleges are becoming “test optional.”

Districts in the metro area and beyond also reported large numbers of opt outs among eleventh graders in 2016. Examples: last year, Hopkins High School had 158 refusals, up from zero in 2015; Wayzata High School had a tiny number of opt outs in 2016–just 12, out of 786 eligible juniors–but that’s up from zero opt outs the year before. Blaine High School, a large, suburban school north of the Twin Cities, saw 100 MCA refusals in 2016; Burnsville High School, south of the Twin Cities, had 30.

Not much of a crowd–except when you consider that zero Burnsville students and only three Blaine juniors refused the MCAs in 2015.

This week, the state’s Office of the Legislative Auditor released a report on standardized testing in Minnesota. The report noted that the state spent $19.2 million on testing in 2016, with one-third of that paid for with federal dollars. Ninety percent of this tab went to the companies such as Pearson that produce the tests and help the state assess test score data. 

The auditor’s report revealed a number of problems with standardized testing in Minnesota, including the conclusion that the legislature has piled too many tasks and expectations on the MCA tests in particular. MCA scores are now expected to show proficiency on the state standards, as well as growth (through the addition of test questions that push students above or below grade level) and a student’s “college and career readiness.”

From the state report on standardized testing (page S-4):

The Legislature has required MDE to develop tests and report test scores in certain ways. Some of these requirements are ill-advised.

State law requires that the MCAs include questions above and below a student’s grade level. However, due to federal requirements, MDE has been unable to use these questions in calculating most of the test scores it reports. As a result, statewide tests have been lengthened for all students without much benefit.

Dolores Ramos, 16, right, joins dozens of Highland High School students in Albuquerque, N.M., as students staged a walkout Monday March 2, 2015, to protest a new standardized test they say isn't an accurate measurement of their education. Students frustrated over the new exam walked out of schools across the state Monday in protest as the new exam was being given. The backlash came as millions of U.S. students start taking more rigorous exams aligned with Common Core standards.

Albuquerque, New Mexico high school students; AP photo

State law also requires MDE to report a score based on the MCA describing each student’s progress toward career and college readiness. But such scores for elementary and middle school students are methodologically problematic. Projections extending far into the future have a high level of uncertainty, and some of them are likely to be wrong.

MCA tests scores are also used in teacher evaluations (per state requirement) and, in some districts, to evaluate principals, too. Another key finding from this report? Across the state, “Many principals and teachers do not feel prepared to interpret much of the testing data reported by MDE.”

In response to this, at a March 5 presentation of the auditor’s report, Republican state representative Sondra Erickson (who has served on ALEC’s education task force) suggested that perhaps teachers need more training in how to interpret test data.

If more students continue to refuse the tests, perhaps such further training will not be necessary. 

The level of testing nonparticipation among high school students in Minneapolis Public Schools has reached the point where it is no longer appropriate to endorse the test results as a valid measure of districtwide student learning.

–Office of the Legislative Auditor’s 2017 report on standardized testing in Minnesota (79)

Meanwhile in Minnesota: Lack of school counselors have experts worried,” as the state has no mandate to fund counselors or maintain a certain number per student.

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No Glitch Grit: Minnesota suspends Pearson tests

Uh oh. 

Image result for opting out of testing

But tests should be!

There will be no MCA testing today in Minnesota. Like so many schoolchildren who can’t sit still, the tests have been suspended.

Naughty, naughty, naughty.

The super high-tech $38 million online only delivery system for the MCAs has been behaving badly, by seizing up and freezing and otherwise not allowing the testing high season to define the school day across Minnesota.

Now, teachers and students will be like estranged family members forced to look at each other across the Thanksgiving table:

Who are you again? How do we know each other? What do you want from me?

Without mandatory marches down to silent computer labs, what will teachers and their scholars in training do all day?  Get to know each other, or something?

What’s the point?

I wonder if these suspended Pearson tests will be punished harshly, under a zero tolerance policy, especially since this latest episode of techno-glitches is far from the company’s first offense:

January 2015: Pearson, MN Dept. of Ed sort through testing breakdowns 

May  2014: A history of Pearson’s testing problems worldwide

April 2013: Pearson fails the test, again and again

Is there a prison for these bad tests, their flawed online delivery systems, and the gigantic beast of a company that packages and sells all of this? Some kind of debtor’s prison? Haven’t they promised to help us, the all important taxpayers, hold our schools accountable? And haven’t they failed us one too many times?

Can we counsel Pearson out of our public education system?

Oh wait– I almost forgot:

Pearson has aggressive lobbyists, top-notch marketing and a highly skilled sales team.

What a surprise. There is always money for Pearson, and always money for test coordinators and test prep and special Spring Break Academy test prep sessions, even as Minnesota legislators contemplate just how little money they can get away with spending on E-12 education in the state.

Unfunded special education mandates? Who cares?

Growing child poverty rates? Not our problem. 

But Pearson? Pearson? We can’t live without them! And they’ll probably be really super mad at us for suspending their tests.

At least, if our Gopher State scholars drop out of high school in droves because they get suspended too many times, or because they can’t hack learning in a classroom of 45, or because they have failed to find the pursuit of rigorous standards thrilling, they can take Pearson’s GED test someday.

Bonus section! Read all about it:

K-12 superintendents and college administrators alike struggle to boost enrollment, raise graduation rates, improve academic outcomes — and to do it all while cutting costs.

In this atmosphere of crisis, Pearson promises solutions. It sells the latest and greatest, and it’s no fly-by-night startup; it calls itself the world’s leading learning company. Public officials have seized it as a lifeline.

“Pearson has been the most creative and the most aggressive at [taking over] all those things we used to take as part of the public sector’s responsibility,” said Michael Apple, a professor of education policy at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

–from Stephanie Simon’s 2015 Politico piece about Pearson, “No Profit Left Behind”

Anna Ed Justice

Portrait of a Young Test Taker

Testing, from the inside out: The following sketch of a young test taker grew out of a conversation I had recently with a school employee. 

She is six years old and in first grade. English is not her first language, Spanish is. But, she is lucky enough to go to a school in Minneapolis–a neighborhood public school–where she will be  taught in Spanish for most of the day, until she is almost ready for middle school. 

Image by artist Ricardo Levins Morales

When it is testing time at her school, though, she is tested only in English. And it is almost always testing time at her school, where many of the kids are poor, non-white, and non-native English speakers. The school has many homeless students, too.

In the fall, near the start of the school year, she took the MAP test, which is an optional, district-chosen reading and math test that is supposed to show “growth,” or how much a student’s MAP score changes during the course of a school year.

The MAP is only done online, and on her first day in the computer lab, she looked at the screen, where the reading test was cued up. In English.

There were paragraphs of text in front of her. She started to cry. 

“I can’t read!”

No one could help her. The testing proctor is not allowed to read the text for her. Her classroom teacher is also not allowed to share any information with her about the test or how to take it.

She is six years old. She can’t read in English yet, or in Spanish.

The test proctor said, “Just do your best.”

The little girl gave up, and started clicking on answers, just to get through the test.

Her teacher will be evaluated on the girl’s test scores, even though the test is in English and the teacher and child work together in Spanish, as a way to ease bilingual children like her into later academic success.

In the spring, the child will take the MAP test in English again.

She also took another test just for English language learners during the winter, called the WIDA test. The WIDA test is a federally mandated test given to all ELL students–from kindergarten through 12th grade–in English. It has to be given to everyone, including students in an Autism or special education program, unless there are extreme circumstances. 

Poster by Ricardo Levins Morales

“It is kind of painful to have to give it to every kid,” says the test proctor. The test takes hours.

Starting in third grade, the girl will take the MAP test in the fall, another optional, district-selected test in the winter called the OLPA (a Pearson-owned prep test for the MCAs), then the ELL/WIDA test, and finally the MCAs. The OLPA can be taken more than once, and it often is.

The assessment guide that comes with the OLPA describes the test this way:

The Optional Local Purpose Assessment (OLPA)…provides a risk-free environment for students to familiarize themselves with online testing and provides teachers with information to target instruction before the reading and mathematics tests used for accountability in the spring.

If she is a “bubble” kid–whose test scores show that she is close to scoring in the proficient range–she will get extra test prep and coaching, in terms of how to improve her score. If she can move from meeting to exceeding expectations on the statewide MCA test, then her school’s numbers will look better. Her teacher’s evaluation score will improve, and the teacher’s principal will look more “effective.”

“It’s all about the cut score,” says the proctor.

What is your testing story? Tell me at sarah.lahm@gmail.com.