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Vexed by winter school cancellations, districts eye spring break

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MCA test prep
Students at Oak-Land Junior High School in the Stillwater district were encouraged to take an online practice Minnesota Comprehensive Assessment test, or MCA, while on spring break this week.
Tim Post / MPR News

At least two Minnesota districts are eyeing spring break as a chance to help students prepare for upcoming state exams or catch up on school work lost to so many snow days this winter.

  Minneapolis expects 2,800 students from kindergarten to eighth-grade to attend its first Spring Break Academy starting March 31. In Stillwater, some school leaders are asking kids to use part of their time off to go online and try a practice version of the Minnesota Comprehensive Assessment tests.

• Related: Schools across state add make-up days after cancellations

  The moves are driven partly by the lost time from school cancellations during the harsh winter. It's not clear, though, how much the extra time will help. State education officials don't think extra work will do much to improve test scores.

  Local leaders, though, say the opportunities can pay off. 

  The extra time in class is critical for those students since they missed out on five days of school because of the weather, said Michael Goar, the Minneapolis district's chief executive. The week-long academy will help struggling students brush up on reading and math and practice test taking, but it won't all be serious, he added. 

    "We want kids to kids to experience fun stuff as well," Goar said. "It's not just academic but also activities that will enable them to really grow as an individual."

  Students who attend all five days of the Spring Break Academy will receive a $20 gift card. For their work, teachers will bank a $2,000 stipend. The district is considering expanding the academy to include winter break next year.

  In Stillwater, the tough winter's meant less time to prepare students for the state MCAs in March, April and May. The tests measure how well students are doing in reading, math and science. State education officials use MCA data to determine which schools are struggling and need help from the state. 

  And under the state's new teacher evaluation system being piloted now, as much as a third of a teacher's performance can be judged on student test scores. 

  At Oak-Land Junior High School in the Stillwater district, Principal Andy Fields has asked parents to find time for their kids to go online and take a practice MCA test while on spring break.

  "They can take it any time they like, they can take it as many times as they like and they can work on specific areas that they're struggling in," he said.

  Some students groaned a bit about the vacation assignment, but 13-year old Oak-Land student Peyton Classon said she's OK with it.

  "Everybody needs to relax," Classon said. "But at the same time you have to keep up with your education and you need to make sure you don't forget everything."

  The online practice MCAs are about more than just helping students review reading math and science, said Oak-Land Junior High English teacher Amy Cook.

  "It also helps build their confidence, too," Cook said. "As they take the practice tests...hopefully that eases anxiety for the students as they go into the real thing later in the month."

  Stillwater school officials say they planned on putting the practice MCAs online before the bad weather hit, but say it ended up to be the perfect time to do it, in light of the six days of class time they lost due to the weather.

  This spring break test prep comes at a time when many educators and parents are questioning the amount of time students spend preparing for, and taking, assessments tests.

  That includes the Minnesota Department of Education. It's working with districts on how to use test to improve student performance. It's also encouraging schools to limit the number of assessments beyond the state required MCAs.

     Education Commissioner Brenda Cassellius said she doesn't fault schools for finding extra time to prepare students for the tests, considering this year's weather challenges, but that she'd rather preparation be limited to the school day.

  "That should be worked into the normal learning calendar year for students and should not be outside of what's required for normal learning," she said.

  The extra efforts around test prep might give some students a bit of a bump at test time, but overall Cassellius said she's not convinced it will make much of a difference in overall scores.