Younger students in local schools will complete MCAs this week

It seems that that the administrators' offices at Roosevelt Elementary School have been taken over by test booklets and answer sheets. They are everywhere in Principal Patti Dols' office -- on a wheeled cart along the wall, in a row of boxes on t...

It seems that that the administrators' offices at Roosevelt Elementary School have been taken over by test booklets and answer sheets.

They are everywhere in Principal Patti Dols' office -- on a wheeled cart along the wall, in a row of boxes on the floor and on the table in the corner. Similar carts for other grades are in offices down the hall.

Perhaps more astonishing than the mountains of paper in Dols' office is the fact that she and her staff keep track of each and every piece of it.

The scene is played out this week in other Willmar schools and in every school district in Minnesota.

It's time for the Minnesota Comprehensive Assessments -- the tests used by the state and federal governments each year to gauge the performance of public schools.


The testing period for reading and math began last week for students in grades 3-8, 10 and 11. The last tests will be given on Friday.

A new version, the MCA-II, was unveiled this year, along with another new test, the Test of Emerging Academic English. The MCA-IIs are aligned with state academic standards for each grade. The old test was aligned with the former Profile of Learning standards. The TEAE will be used to measure reading progress of students with limited English proficiency.

The scores are released each fall and are used to decide if schools are making adequate yearly progress under the 6-year-old federal law called No Child Left Behind.

Time commitment

The testing, preparation and aftermath keep students and school staff busy.

Curriculum Director Danith Clausen receives state training in how to handle the testing materials and then trains the local staff. She spends most of her work time in her office during testing weeks so she can be close to her phone and reference materials.

Dols estimated that she and her staff spend about a week before the testing period, making sure the test booklets are all accounted for and ready to be distributed to Roosevelt's nearly 700 students in the fourth, fifth and sixth grades.

Teachers check out and check in every single test booklet. "This happens every day, with all of the tests," Dols said.


Students will spend about 10 hours in testing over these two weeks. The math and reading tests each take between four and five hours over two days. After the tests, it takes another week to verify that every test is packed up properly for shipping to the state.


Tests like the MCA-IIs are not used to gauge individual student progress so much as the overall performance of school districts.

For students who want to know what the test means to them, the answer can be complicated.

"Our kids take it very seriously," Dols said.

She gave teachers and families the credit for the positive student attitude. "I think they do a nice job of helping students understand this is one opportunity to measure how you're doing," she said.

This entire process doesn't come cheap.

The Minnesota Department of Education has an $18 million budget for its testing program, said Tim Vansickle, director of assessment and testing for the Minnesota Department of Education.


He estimated that the time local officials spend on the program is worth another $5 million or more.

"It is a lot of money, obviously," but the testing budget is only about 1.6 percent of the state's overall education budget, he said. Some states spend as much as 10 percent to 12 percent of their budgets on testing, he added.

Perhaps the simplest reason for the testing is that the federal government says we have to do it, Vansickle said. In a more academic vein, it's a way to measure whether schools are meeting expectations, he added.

"Taxpayers and others say, 'Are we getting our money's worth?'" he said, and the testing offers some answers to that question. Schools deemed to be falling short can face a variety of penalties.

"I think the testing has come about because we do operate in an atmosphere of accountability," said Kathy Leedom, Willmar's superintendent.

The goal of No Child Left Behind is to have 100 percent of children testing at grade level by 2013, just seven years from now.

Educators agree wholeheartedly with the goal, but many are concerned that it's not practical.

"Education is all about dealing with human beings," Leedom said. "The bottom line is that education is a very complex process that cannot be completely analyzed through test results."


No Child Left Behind has had some positive aspects, Leedom said.

"It helped shed a light on ensuring that we have high expectations for all students," she said. "Our teachers are tireless in bringing children along in their learning."

It's likely that some type of testing is here to stay, she added. "As long as our stakeholders are looking for some type of data that indicates return on investment, I do imaging testing will be part of the framework."

New tests

Teachers and administrators are anxious to see how the district's students will handle the MCA-IIs and the TEAE, Dols said.

"Because it is based truly on the new state standards, I look at this as a baseline," she said.

They may have to wait longer than usual.

Results are usually released in late August, but scoring the new tests could delay the public release until November, Vansickle said.


Vansickle agreed that this year's tests will provide the foundation for judging future trends, because the new and old tests can't be compared.

However, because expectations have changed, scores typically go down when a testing program is changed, he said.

Another unknown is how students learning English will score on the TEAE. Vansickle said he couldn't predict whether those students will do better, but "I would say it's a fairer measure of their reading ability than the MCA, when they're first learning to read English."

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