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Quick quiz: The best way to measure student learning is: A. yearly standardized tests;  B. written exams at the end of each year;  C. a portfolio of varied assessments – what’s the correct answer?

As you read this, my students are enmeshed in the beginning of testing season. The Minnesota Comprehensive Assessments (MCAs) have begun, and that must mean it’s time for my annual rant about standardized testing. Thus, you know that answer A above must be incorrect!

Standardized testing has long been a part of American education. Many of us remember the Iowa Basics that we took every year. They weren’t so bad, just a couple days off from the regular curriculum. I look back and think they were given just for the sake of giving them; I don’t recall any pressure to do well.

This type of fill-in-the-bubble test carried on to storied tests such as the ACT and SAT. But at least those tests meant something. If you wanted to go to college, you needed to achieve a particular score; if you wanted scholarships, you needed to score even higher. Those seemed like tests to give some thought and effort to in advance.

I’ve written before on just how many tests our students have to take. Part of this is the fault of the government and part falls on our own school district for adding more than the requirement in an effort to see where our kids are lacking to prepare better for the “big” tests. This becomes a vicious cycle though, since the extra testing is enough to turn kids off for the annual tests given by the state. Whatever benefits are thought to be gotten from the extra “choose the best answer” tests are long lost by middle school, when the petulance of being a teenager adds to the chaos.

I prefer to judge my students based on a progression of skills through the year (or years if I have them in 7th and 8th grade). My 7th graders write an essay in September and come back to that essay in May for revisions. The changes are astounding! They have learned a lot about writing during the year. The same thing goes for reading. The level of stories goes up throughout the year. By 8th grade, they don’t realize they are reading more difficult material because they’ve reached a different comfort level.

However, portfolios of work would be time consuming for the state to look through. And why do they need to keep track of every student in Minnesota? Is it because they don’t trust the schools to do their jobs? There are some theories on that, but good luck getting the Minnesota Department of Education to give you a straight answer.

Tests show that our students are not reading to grade level. It’s funny, however, how the rigor of those tests has changed dramatically over the years. When I started teaching, we gave the Basic Standards Tests (BSTs) to 8th graders. Across the state, most students passed these tests; NRHEG maxed out above 90% in math and reading multiple times. Suddenly, the BSTs went away, to be replaced by the MCAs. And there went our scores. The state has fiddled with these tests many times since they began, constantly shifting the target. We were told the BSTs were 8th grade level – so how could scores across the state have dropped with the MCAs?

It’s simple. Schools were doing TOO well. That wasn’t something to be celebrated by MDE or the federal government. They wanted to have more control over local schools, so they changed the formula to give themselves a reason to interfere. The state and all its school districts have thrown millions of dollars away on these tests. Multi-million dollar contracts are signed across the nation by states and testing companies.

However, there may be some relief in sight. Governor Dayton has said he wants to cut back on testing by at least one-third. Is an occasional test okay? Sure thing. Would a graduation reading and math test be a good idea? Absolutely – our kids should enter the world with basic skills. Is anything proved by these tests every single year? Nope.

Come see the progress our students make. Then think about how much more they could make if we didn’t have to spend weeks every year teaching to these tests. Answer C above is the best answer, but the government would never look at that type of question as good enough for their testing.

Word of the Week: Thanks to Pam and Larry Goehring for the collection of books with so many wonderful words – I’m stocked up for a long time! This week’s word is poltroon, which means an utter coward, as in, “The columnist was certainly no poltroon, always standing behind his opinion.” Impress your friends and confuse your enemies!

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