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Rising cost of exams tests schools

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ST. PAUL — A growing number of Minnesota districts are taking stock of the tests they give students.

And they are asking tough questions about them: How many are really necessary? How often? Which exams tell the most?

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Spending on standardized testing fees that districts and charter schools report to the state is up 30 percent in five years, to $8.1 million last school year. In some large metro districts such as Minneapolis and St. Paul, those tabs have more than doubled in that time.

These are assessments districts choose to administer beyond required state math, reading and science tests, for which they do not pay. Districts say the additional tests supply key feedback on student learning they could not glean from state tests, at least not from the paper version Minnesota is phasing out now.

But more districts are scaling back, sometimes in response to pushback from educators and parents.

Even as they say multiple-choice tests will continue to play an important role, some districts are exploring alternatives. Amid growing interest in instruction that favors depth and critical thinking, educators are looking for assessments that better gauge and encourage those skills.

Both Minneapolis and St. Paul are gearing up to inventory the tests their students take.

“We want to make sure all our assessments are meaningful and support students’ and teachers’ needs,” said Eric Moore, director of research, evaluation and assessment in Minneapolis.

Why costs are up

A slew of factors play into why Minnesota schools’ standardized test costs are growing.

Early childhood assessments, such as tests that measure kindergarten readiness, are catching on. Some schools have expanded use of specialized tests, such as those looking for gifted program candidates.

Districts also are pushing more students to take college-credit Advanced Placement and International Baccalaureate tests. And for the second year, Minneapolis is covering the college-entrance ACT for all juniors.

More educators also are using tests to track student progress in math and reading. Of about 540 districts and charter schools in the state, more than 470 now administer the Measures of Academic Progress, or MAP test, some as many as four times a year.

Several years ago, Wayzata High School launched a yearlong math course for freshmen who arrive unprepared to tackle ninth-grade math. Teacher Kristen Addonizio said educators first use the MAP to find out which students would benefit from the class and to diagnose gaps in their knowledge. End-of-course MAP tests assured her and a co-teacher that they were on the right track.

Says Jason Mendenhall with nonprofit MAP vendor Northwest Evaluation Association: “The test is about giving teachers reliable information about where each student is and what they are ready to learn next.”

The rise in spending has been especially steep in Minnesota’s urban districts. St. Paul reported $343,000 in standardized test costs in 2009 and about $805,000 last year.

Such expenses make up a tiny fraction of metro districts’ multi-million-dollar budgets. At the same time, vendor fees are a fraction of the overall price tag for testing. Other costs include paying staff to oversee them, technology to store and track the data and professional development to help teachers make the most of the results.

Overall, say experts like Michael Rodriguez at the University of Minnesota, students in this state spend considerably less time taking tests compared with some other parts of the country, including New York state. But he said he still sees districts that make strategic use of the information to boost learning — and some that do not.

“Data-driven instruction had become the buzzword,” Rodriguez said. “But some districts flood teachers and staff with so much information, they become immobilized.”

Standardized tests shine a spotlight on disparities in achievement — whether for students of color or those with special needs — so districts can steer teacher support and dollars wisely, said Taylor Rub, a special education teacher at the Minneapolis charter Bright Water Elementary. During a recent panel discussion on testing, Rub argued in favor of judicious use of standardized testing — what she called “one of the most controversial and contentious issues in education.”

Pushing back

Student assessment tests are at the center of an intense debate nationally. From a boycott of the MAP in Seattle last year to a parent opt-out movement catching on across the country, educators and parents have pushed back.

Critics have questioned the time bubble tests can leech from instruction. They have chafed against some of their uses, from grading schools to evaluating teachers. They’ve charged that some districts use them mainly to prepare for high-stakes mandatory tests — “the tests you take to tell you how you’ll do on the tests,” as Anoka-Hennepin Federation of Teachers President Julie Blaha put it.

Teachers unions in both St. Paul and Minneapolis called for curtailing testing in the latest round of contract talks. In an addendum to the new St. Paul teacher contract, the union and district vowed to decrease the time spent on standardized tests by 25 percent — even as they affirmed these tests provide important information.

Matt Mohs, the district’s chief academic officer, said St. Paul already has taken steps in that direction. Like Anoka-Hennepin, St. Paul cut back on the number of times it administers the MAP this school year for some grades.

St. Paul is weighing scrapping the MAP altogether, perhaps as soon as next school year. Instead, the district would administer new practice versions of the mandatory Minnesota Comprehensive Assessments, or MCAs, which offer instant results earlier in the school year. The state, which recently signed a three-year, $33.8 million deal with testing giant Pearson, has pledged to boost the usefulness of information the MCAs and practice tests yield.

“We would be losing some quality information as we’re waiting for the state test to evolve,” Mohs said. “But we need to accept a compromise.”

Federation President Mary Cathryn Ricker said the union and district will weigh the time tests take against the usefulness of the feedback. The union is eyeing the time-consuming one-on-one assessments as part of the district’s elementary reading curriculum called Mondo.

“The question is, ‘Are we getting powerful enough information from this test that it justifies the weeks away from actual instruction?’ ” Ricker said.

In Minneapolis, a committee of administrators, teachers and possibly parents will review the district’s slate of tests and make recommendations by the end of the school year.

That district administers the MAP and two other standardized tests, as well as reading and vocabulary assessments some elementary students take up to three times a year. With input from educators, Minneapolis also is developing “benchmark” tests: assessments all teachers in a certain subject and grade give periodically to measure progress.

Testing’s next wave

Educators like Blaha and Ricker have argued the rise of standardized tests has led districts to devalue the variety of ways in which teachers size up student work and progress day to day. That includes those that don’t produce a grade or database entry.

“There’s a great value in doing large system-wide checks, but those have to be balanced with customized classroom checks,” Blaha said.

A hot topic in education circles are performance-based tests, which ask students to do more than pick the right answer to a multiple-choice question: Learners have to apply what they have learned, explain how they arrived at a solution or make comparisons. At least in part, interest in performance tests springs from the new Common Core state standards, which call for more in-depth study and problem-solving.

In Minneapolis, new benchmark assessments include both multiple choice and open-ended questions that require lengthier written responses, said Mike Lynch, that district’s executive director of teaching and learning. The rigorous assessments in the college-credit International Baccalaureate program have served as a model.

But while more open-ended exams can yield richer insight, they are much more time-consuming and subjective to score.

“We’re asking students to do more interesting and engaging things on those tests, but grading and cost are issues,” Rodriguez said. “More efficiency, less information — it’s such a hard trade-off.”

In any case, Rodriguez says, a growing number of districts are working on their own benchmark assessments. More are leaning on the ultimate content experts — their educators — to shape these tests.

“As we see more and more of these assessments,” he said, “standardized tests will become less useful.”

The Pioneer Press is a media partner with Forum News Service.

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