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Are you smarter than an eighth-grader?

Eighth-grade students across the state will take the Minnesota Comprehensive Assessment test in math in April. Teachers at the Willmar Middle School are a little anxious about the new test -- the MCA III -- which will be heavy in algebra and will be given online for the first time this year. (Tribune photo by Ron Adams)

Take a look at the state's sample math test for eighth-graders, chock full of algebra problems, and, depending on your memory and your age, you may think:

Wow, I've forgotten a lot.

Umm, what does that word mean?

Did I ever learn this in the first place?

Wait, this is for eighth-graders?

Yes, it's for eighth graders, and Willmar school officials were as surprised as anyone when the sample test was posted on the Minnesota Department of Education website at the end of 2010.

Superintendent Jerry Kjergaard's reaction? "I thought I wasn't smart enough," he said. "I haven't taken math for a long time."

The Minnesota Comprehensive Assessment tests are given to students in reading and math to students in grades 3-8 each spring. Students are also tested in reading in 10th grade and in math in 11th grade.

A new version of the tests is being given this year, the third incarnation of the MCA, now called MCA III. The tests are used to gauge whether the school is making adequate yearly progress under the federal No Child Left Behind education law.

Eighth-grade math teachers Sheila Ascheman and Nancy Powers at Willmar Middle School are a little anxious about the new test, too.

When the students are tested in April, they will have done everything they could to get their students ready. But the new test is more difficult, and it will be taken online for the first time this year.

The students will not know what's on the test until they actually sit down to take it, and neither will their teachers.

"This is going to be a learning year for us," Powers said. "It's going to be that way throughout the state."

The test and its heavy algebra content is a result of new state standards that require students to take algebra I in eighth grade and to take algebra II in high school.

Danith Clausen, the district's director of curriculum and instruction, said people shouldn't be surprised that the MCA III is different. "I think it's just a kind of shock when you see how different it is from the previous test."

The algebra requirement and other new state standards are aimed at making students "college and career ready," Clausen said. "The colleges are needing kids to come in at a higher level of math to prepare for math and science careers."

A recent report on the number of students requiring remedial classes in Minnesota's public colleges found that more students needed classes in math more than in any other subject area.

The concern of the math teachers is what Powers called "math maturity."

Many of their students will do fine with the test, and more are getting to that level all the time, they said. But some kids have struggled with algebra.

Ascheman sometimes talks to former students who tell her that they didn't understand what she was teaching them until later.

"They say, 'If I'd just worked harder,' and I think, 'If you'd been a little older,'" she said. "It's a maturity thing."

The test contains algebra problems that many adults wouldn't have learned how to do until high school or later.

Powers explained that technology and tools like graphing calculators have allowed students to learn more about math at a younger age.

They knew the MCA III would be different, but "we didn't know they were going to change the test so dramatically," Powers said.

"Even on the seventh-grade test, there's quite a bit of algebra in there," Ascheman said.

"One of the things that's kind of concerning is they keep raising the bar on us," she added.

Each year, schools are expected to have more children pass the tests. And now, in this third version of the MCA, the tests are much more difficult.

Young people develop at different rates, the teachers said. Some are ready for algebra in seventh or eighth grade, but others may not be ready until later.

"I think there's a math maturity," Powers said. She teaches a math class for nursing students, she said, and she often hears them say they understand something now that they didn't grasp in high school.

The teachers said their students have been helped by a modified block schedule the school uses for math and communications classes. The students spend extra time in those classes on alternating days.

"We are able to cover more material," Powers said. "Even when we give a chapter test, we see progress."

Kjergaard said he thought it would be good for the community to see what the tests are like.

"There's a significant portion of the population that couldn't do those problems," he said. "I have a doctorate, and I'm part of it. ... Maybe some people will say, 'Oh, that's easy," ... but not many.

Linda Vanderwerf

I cover education issues for the West Central Tribune and have worked for the paper since 1995. I have worked in journalism since 1981.

Follow me on Twitter: @lindavanderwerf

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