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St. Paul teachers union wants district to drop mandated tests

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MCA-II tests
Piles of answer sheets and test booklets for the 11th grade MCA-II. The St. Paul teachers union is demanding that by next spring the district stop giving students an assessment test required by the state and federal government.
MPR Photo/Tom Weber

When the St. Paul teachers union continues contract talks later this month, the usual items are expected to be on the negotiating table: salary, benefits and class sizes.

But the union is adding something new, something no other teachers group in the state has done before. It is demanding that, by next spring, the district stop giving students an assessment test required by the state and federal government. 

It's the latest move by teachers who say the time spent preparing students in the third through eighth grade for Minnesota Comprehensive Assessments hurts their students academically.

"You've now had a ridiculous amount of your learning time taken away from you," said Mary Cathryn Ricker, president of the St. Paul Federation of Teachers.

Instead of relying on state reading and math tests, union leaders say the district should develop its own assessment test to measure student achievement, with the input of teachers.

The union has a laundry list of other complaints about the MCAs, used to determine how well students are progressing toward state academic standards and how well schools and teachers are doing. 

Union leaders say the tests are a poor indicator of student and teacher performance. They claim the tests require teachers narrow their focus on subjects like math, leaving aside the arts. They also contend many of the test questions are racially biased, guaranteeing some students of color won't do well.

"Our working conditions are our students' learning conditions... When our students' learning conditions are not where they need to be, that affects us at work."

For Ricker, the negotiating table is the logical place to discuss testing protocol. 

Matt Mohs, the chief academic officer for St. Paul Public Schools and a member of the district's contract negotiation team, disagrees. 

"We don't see the contract as the appropriate place to have those conversations," said Mohs, who added that the union demand on testing won't fly with the district.

For one, he said district officials value the data from the MCAs on how students are keeping up with state standards, and how they compare to students in other districts around the state. 

Secondly, Mohs said, the tests are required by state and federal law.

"It's really not within the purview of district administration to violate state and federal statute," he said.

Eliminating the tests could prove problematic for the district or the state.

Minnesota education officials can't say exactly what the penalties might be, but they could include the withholding of federal education funding from the district or the state.

There have been a handful of incidents of testing boycotts around the country recently in recent months, but most involved district level assessments, not federally mandated tests.

Teachers are increasingly trying to spur discussion, and in some cases acting, on testing.  

Silva, Ricker
In a file photo from 2011, St. Paul superintendent Valeria Silva, left, speaks with Mary Cathryn Ricker, the president of the district's teachers' union. The union is demanding that the district stop giving students an assessment test required by the state and federal government.
MPR Photo/Tom Weber

In January, teachers in Seattle boycotted an assessment test, refusing to give it to their students. A few months later, Seattle education officials said the test would no longer be required. 

After pushback against standardized testing in Chicago Public Schools, school officials this week announced they would cut back on the number of assessment tests given to students. 

Members of the Minneapolis Federation of Teachers, who are in negotiations now, are not proposing that their district drop MCA tests.  But union president Lynn Nordgren said the union is asking the Minneapolis district to drop district level assessments, especially those that duplicate state and federal testing.

The Minnesota Department of Education does not have the authority to excuse a district from giving MCA tests, chief of staff Charlene Briner said.

State education officials also would not welcome any attempts to defy federal law, she said.

"We would not want to be in a position where we were running askance of those state and federal laws in way that would ultimately subject us to a some sort of sanction, financial or otherwise," Briner said.

However, Briner notes that state Education Commissioner Brenda Cassellius is on the record saying the federal government requires too much testing, and that she'd prefer only a sample of Minnesota students were tested each year.  

As for the demand by the St. Paul union that its district stop giving students the state tests, that troubles Jim Bartholomew, the educational policy director for the Minnesota Business Partnership.

Bartholomew said MCA test scores provide a view of how students, and their schools are performing. 

"They are the one objective piece of information that families and the public have to know how well kids in St. Paul are doing relative to the rest of the state on our nation leading standards," he said.

Other teachers unions in Minnesota are watching to see if there's any change comes about because of the St. Paul effort. 

Julie Blaha, the president of Anoka Hennepin Education Minnesota, said if testing reduces the amount of time that teachers have with their students in the classroom, then the issue should be in teacher contracts. 

"Our working conditions are our students' learning conditions," Blaha said. "When our students' learning conditions are not where they need to be, that affects us at work."

The letter of the law combined with opposition from the St. Paul school district, might make it hard for the union's demand to move forward. 

Still, union learners say their concerns are being heard. Earlier this summer, St. Paul school district officials announced they would cut back on some district level student assessments. 

District officials say they're always evaluating the number of tests they give students, but won't consider dropping federally and state mandated assessment tests.

EDITOR'S NOTE: An earlier version of this story misidentified Charlene Briner's title. The current version is correct.