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Minn. Legislature may be changing state testing system

Jaceal Diaz takes the Minnesota Comprehensive Assessment test April 19 at a computer bay in the lab at Kennedy Elemenatary School in Willmar. Tribune photo by Ron Adams

WILLMAR — It can take a Minnesota third-grader six to seven hours over several days to complete state-required tests in reading and math.

High school students could soon be required to pass a difficult math test to earn a high school diploma.

School districts don’t see test results until the school year is over, making it difficult for them to address students’ academic needs quickly.

These are some ways the current testing system frustrates teachers and administrators in the state’s public schools, but things could be changing.

The Legislature may be on the verge of rewriting testing requirements in ways that may lessen the frustration.

Both the House and Senate have approved legislation that would do away with the current tests required for high school graduation, called GRAD tests, and replace them with testing designed to better gauge a student’s academic knowledge and overall interests.

The state will continue testing students annually in grades 3-8, because it’s required by federal law.

However, those tests might be changed to offer more flexibility.

A conference committee is to start meeting later this week to sort out differences between the two bills. Rep. Dean Urdahl, R-Grove City, is on the conference committee.

The bill also includes more funding for schools that provide all-day, everyday kindergarten and an increase in state funding per pupil.

The controversy over the GRAD test is primarily over a math test that has been difficult for students to pass.

Urdahl said the Legislature is trying to address a concern that “half of the graduates by 2017 won’t be able to pass,” he said. That could be many as 30,000 students.

The new law would allow school districts to determine if graduates had met all the requirements for a diploma.

Area superintendents are still waiting to see the bill in its final form.

“It’s about time they made a change,” said Willmar Superintendent Jerry Kjergaard. “I don’t think GRAD tests have done anything to improve education.”

Kjergaard, who has a doctorate, said recently “that math test is just a bear. … I would not be a high school graduate right now if I had to pass that math test.”

Schools are not looking for easier tests, he said, but they do want more meaningful results.

Montevideo Superintendent Luther Heller said in an email that he believes there is support for the changes. A test like the ACT would mean more to colleges and students.

Heller listed three problems with the current system: too many tests, tests that don’t deliver real-time results, and tests that don’t provide useful information about academic progress.

“This should be better for students,” said Paul Carlson, superintendent at New London-Spicer. However, his preferred option would be end-of-course exams.

Carlson said Republicans in the House and Senate fought vigorously against changing the GRAD tests, and are likely to continue arguing against it.

Rep. Mary Sawatzky, DFL-Willmar, is also a special education teacher at Willmar Middle School, and she supports the testing changes.

“We need to look at accountability for our students,” she said, and she hopes to see a less cumbersome, more useful system.

The current system changes the tests frequently. Content is kept secret, so even teachers don’t know what to expect on the tests.

The new proposal is a computer-adaptive test for grades 3-7 which is aligned with state standards and delivers results quickly.

Testing for grades 8 and 10 would use a “nationally normed assessment for career and college readiness,” according to the House legislation, and in grade 11 use a “nationally recognized” college entrance exam or the armed services vocational aptitude test.

“It will be up to the colleges to admit people,” Urdahl said. Sawatzky said colleges often do not consider state testing in deciding admissions anyway.

Though the law does not specify what the test should be, the primary nationally recognized college entrance exam used in Minnesota is the ACT. The same company develops tests for use in grades 8 and 10.

Sawatzky said some students are able to pass their higher-level math courses but still cannot pass the difficult GRAD test.

“They are learning more math than I did back in the day,” she said, but businesses say that students still lack practical, hands-on knowledge, like counting back change.

Computer problems lead state to extend testing time In the first 16 days of high-stakes state testing at Roosevelt Elementary School this spring in Willmar, three days were disrupted by computer problems, a rate of nearly 20 percent.

“Sometimes kids sit there for 10 or 15 minutes waiting for the next question to load,” said Roosevelt Principal Nathan Cox.

Cox said the school and staff have done what they can to keep frustration to a minimum, but it’s hard to avoid it.

Now, the Minnesota Department of Education is acknowledging the delays and allowing additional time for testing.

In a memo sent to school districts Wednesday, Commissioner Brenda Cassellius said that the extended timeline should give students time to finish tests.

“Every student deserves a fair and accurate assessment of their performance,” Cassellius said in the memo. “And every teacher, every school and every parent should have confidence in the information the tests provide.  The additional time may ease some of the inconvenience these interruptions have caused and allow us more time to fully evaluate any potential impact on student test scores.”

Some experts have said recently that the results of the tests may not be useful because of the problems.

“My staff and I will continue working closely with teachers, districts, experts and stakeholders to create the next generation of online assessments that will help better prepare Minnesota students for success in college and career,” Cassellius said in the memo.

Cox said he and the staff members do what they can to keep anxiety levels down at testing time. He visits each classroom at the beginning of testing, “thanking kids for all their hard work” and telling them it has been noticed.

“I tell them I remember getting knots in my stomach at their age,” he said. “I tell them we just want them to give us their best.”

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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