Educators talk to legislators about state tests

WILLMAR -- Educators across Minnesota are pleased with the Legislature's move to pay for all day, everyday kindergarten, and they appreciate the overall increase in education funding.

Rep. Mary Sawatzky, DFL-Willmar, left, listens Thursday as Rep. Paul Thissen, Minnesota House Speaker, center, discusses education issues during a session with teachers in Willmar. Tribune photo by Ron Adams

WILLMAR - Educators across Minnesota are pleased with the Legislature's move to pay for all day, everyday kindergarten, and they appreciate the overall increase in education funding.

But they would like to see more changes in the state's testing program.

More than 30 people attended an education roundtable Thursday afternoon in Willmar to meet with Minnesota House Speaker Paul Thissen, DFL-Minneapolis, Rep. Mary Sawatzky, DFL-Willmar, and Rep. Andrew Falk, DFL-Murdock. They met in the rehearsal hall at the Willmar Education and Arts Center.

Thissen said it was the sixth such meeting outside the Twin Cities area that he's held recently.

The conversation about what to do with education funding started with campaigns in 2012, he said, and culminated in the Legislature, newly under DFL control, making a number of changes.


The decision to begin funding full-time kindergarten for districts that want to provide it has probably been the most popular, he said.

Falk commented that the idea was popular outside education circles, too. It was applauded earlier Thursday at a Kiwanis meeting he attended in Olivia.

"I think people get that it's going to make a real difference for kids," Thissen said.

Other changes he listed include a tuition freeze on public colleges and universities in the state, as well as some changes in state testing requirements.

Funding for K-12 education will increase for the coming school year and even more in the 2014-15 school year.

According to information distributed at the meeting, Willmar's schools can expect $707,000 in additional revenue this school year and $2.5 million more in 2014-15. New-London Spicer Schools will see $142,000 more revenue this year and $640,000 next year. Atwater-Cosmos-Grove City will see $85,000 more this year and $419,482 next year.

The state's GRAD tests have been scrapped, Thissen said, but students will still need to meet their districts' requirements to graduate and take state tests.

The new testing requirements will be more meaningful to students and to colleges, he said.


Sawatzky, a Willmar special education teacher, said she liked the new testing plans, which will be used to gauge students' interests and strengths.

Thissen and Sawatzky said the new money will come with new requirements and accountability measures.

"I am a teacher, and I know we have to be accountable," she said.

Adjusting to the changes could be a "rocky road," Sawatzky said, but "I'm excited that we're looking at investing in education."

Retired principal Patti Dols said she was pleased that the Legislature provided for pre-school scholarships. "What a great start," she said, but she challenged the legislators to continue looking for ways to ensure quality pre-school learning for all children.

Thissen praised the local efforts to help preschoolers.

When the issue of the state's standardized testing came up, a number of teachers weighed in with the problems they've seen.

Willmar students take their tests online, but not all districts do. Last spring, the state experienced numerous problems with the system. Students sometimes had to wait to be able to sign in to the tests, and some had their connections terminated before they were done with the tests


Several teachers spoke about the anxiety the computer problems caused for students. It was a particular problem for special needs students who experienced the computer problems, they said.

In addition to the computer problems, the teachers mentioned other problems -- delayed test scores, American Sign Language scripts that don't match computer questions and being compared to schools that administer the tests differently.

"Pretty quickly, they start to say, 'Why is this important to me," teacher Mike Dokkebakken said. He added that he understood the need for assessments, but they need to be meaningful assessments.

One of the teachers suggested that legislators spend a day monitoring kids taking the state tests.

Sawatzky said she had suggested in an Education Policy Committee meeting that all legislators take the tests, but no one took her up on it.

Thissen said legislators hear similar complaints around the state and will continue looking into the system.

Thissen ended the gathering with praise for Sawatzky and Falk for their hard work at the Legislature. Sawatzky is in her first term, and Falk is in his third.

"She did hit the ground running," Thissen said of Sawatzky. "Both of them fight hard to bring voices from this area, and they are heard."

In 42 years in the newspaper industry, Linda Vanderwerf has worked at several daily newspapers in Minnesota, including the Mesabi Daily News, now called the Mesabi Tribune in Virginia. Previously, she worked for the Las Cruces Sun-News in New Mexico and the Rapid City Journal in the Black Hills of South Dakota. She has been a reporter at the West Central Tribune for nearly 27 years.

Vanderwerf can be reached at email: or phone 320-214-4340
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