Auditor: Testing takes up significant school time, has limited usefulness

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Answer sheet
An answer sheet for the MCA-II standardized test.
Tom Weber | MPR News 2009

Minnesota's standardized tests take up significant time and money but have limited usefulness, according to a report out Monday from the state legislative auditor.

The report evaluated the state-wide Minnesota Comprehensive Assessments — given to middle and high schoolers in math, reading and science — and the statewide ACCESS test for English language learners. It also surveyed school districts on locally adopted tests.

The audit found many principals and teachers feel unprepared to use state test results. Almost a quarter of principals feel unprepared to use MCA scores, while less than half of principals who work with English language learners said they are prepared to interpret the ACCESS test.

The report noted almost a third of district assessment coordinators said they're unsatisfied with the state Education Department's assistance on interpretation.

Assistant education commissioner Kevin McHenry said the department recently hired a staff member to help districts with interpretation. "But that is only one person ... That's something that we are looking at expanding our ability to reach districts, reach parents, reach teachers and school administrators," McHenry said.

The report noted tests are used for many purposes, including measuring growth, proficiency, evaluating teachers and course placement at state colleges, among others.

"It's a little bit like asking the department to buy a car that gets great gas mileage and can tow a boat and carries lots of passengers and it's easy to parallel park and it costs less than $25,000," evaluation manager David Kirchner said. The report recommended the Legislature clarify priorities for how tests are used.

A large majority of teachers and principals who responded did say MCA scores help pinpoint achievement gaps and determine whether students meet standards. Less than half of principals called tests useful for evaluating individual teachers.

A requirement that tests be given electronically also means some districts spend time rotating students through limited available computers, said deputy legislative auditor Judy Randall.

"More than half of Minnesota schools took more than three weeks to administer the state standardized tests ... in fact more than 300 schools took five weeks or more," Randall said. The report suggested the education department measure impacts of testing on districts.

But federal law limits changes state officials can make. Testing is mandated in reading, math and science in middle and high school. Other details of federal requirements may be up in the air with the new presidential administration.

"We have a lot that we have to sort of wait on ... so this is not something we're going to act on immediately. It will probably be one of these interim study groups," said Rep. Sondra Erickson, R-Princeton, and chair of the House education policy committee.