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A12-1203 State v. Sherer (Cook County)

Less school testing on horizon after Obama weighs in

Not every committee hearing in the sometimes sleepy interim between legislative sessions gets a jumpstart from something the president of the United States says just a few days before.

But that was the case last week when the Senate Education Committee took up the issue of reducing the time Minnesota schools spend in testing.

In the days leading up to the committee hearing, President Obama laid out goals and administrative actions aimed at reducing “over-testing” and issued an open letter to America’s parents and teachers titled “Let’s Make Our Testing Smarter.”

It was widely seen as a remarkable reversal from years of federal laws and policy that pressed more testing on school districts, and it did not go unnoticed in the hearing room in St. Paul.

Advocates of reduced testing took heart and even testing proponents seemed to acknowledge that something is afoot when the president weighs in.

Tests “shouldn’t occupy too much classroom time, or crowd out teaching and learning,” Obama said, adding that educators “should use classroom work, surveys, and other factors to give us an all-around look at how our students and schools are doing.”

Obama’s words reverberated in St. Paul. “The political landscape is changing,” said Peter Olson-Skog, assistant superintendent at Roseville Area Schools, who testified at the hearing. He said in an interview that he sees Obama’s comments on test reduction reflecting “a growing consensus, in multiple political parties.”

Paul Mueller, vice president of Education Minnesota, said the president’s remarks “coincided quite nicely” with the committee hearing. He praised Obama, who he called an ardent supporter of testing, for “using his bully pulpit to acknowledge … we need to step back.”

In its statement, the White House called out Minnesota for reducing tests by making them multi-purpose: “States can include indicators of student learning, including student growth as measured by factors other than state standardized assessments, in their teacher evaluation policies.  For example, as part of its ESEA [Elementary and Secondary Education Act] waiver policy, Minnesota is approved to allow its districts to include state assessment based growth at any percent (even less than 1 percent), which is sufficient because Minnesota is including, as a significant factor, student learning growth measured by factors other than the state assessment.”

Testing reduction is a priority of long standing for Gov. Mark Dayton, who had the state Department of Education form a Testing Reduction Advisory Group that issued recommendations earlier this year. The Legislature took action last session, putting a soft cap on the number of hours students take local districts’ tests and cutting the state Department of Education‘s budget for testing. In August, Education Minnesota‘s Educator Policy Innovation Center (EPIC) released a report on testing reduction.

A key question is whether to continue the state’s current regime of Minnesota Comprehensive Assessments (MCAs) in grades 5-8 and high school, or to trim it. One idea, included in EPIC’s report, is to switch to a “grade span” schedule of only one MCA test in each of three levels: elementary, middle school and high school.

Sen. Chuck Wiger, DFL-Maplewood, chair of the Senate Education Committee, said he expects legislation along those lines next session. Some have even advocated that high school students take the nationally used ACT “in lieu of all or part of” the high school MCA.

An objection raised by Jim Bartholomew, education policy director at the Minnesota Business Partnership, among others, is that the ACT is not tailored to the learning standards Minnesota has adopted.

But, said Wiger, “for a cost, you could augment or tweak” the ACT to better match state standards. “When you talk to colleges,” he added, “the MCAs are meaningless.”

Bartholomew, whose organization pushed for the development of state standards and then the tests to see how well students and schools were measuring up, defended the MCAs as Minnesota parents’ and educators’ only source of independent information about student progress.

As people so often say at the state Capitol, words matter. Especially when they come from the president of the United States.

“That’s a pretty big sign,” said Erik Sivertson, a teacher in the Sauk Rapids-Rice Public Schools and a co-author of the EPIC report who said he sees “the pendulum swinging the other way.”

Joked Olson-Skog: “I called [Obama] that morning. Now I owe him a ridiculous number of coffees.”

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