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Four different tests challenge District 518 students

WORTHINGTON -- Accountability, data-driven decision-making and ultimately, student achievement are behind the array of tests local educators use to assess and assist kids.

Though District 518 uses four different standardized tests, they all measure slightly different things, in different subjects and in different ways. While students do get their own results, the numbers are also used by others -- the teacher, the school, the school district, the state and federal governments and finally, colleges.

Performance on some tests has a direct effect on students, while others can change school's funding.

GRAD Tests

Initially, students take the reading Graduation-Required Assessment for Diploma (GRAD) at the end of 10th grade and the math GRAD at the end of 11th grade. But every month, District 518 offers students a chance to retake one of the two tests, alternating between them.

Of all the standardized tests, the GRADs have the most direct impact on students.

"Basically, they have to pass it to graduate," said Tammy Timko, coordinator of teaching and learning for District 518. "But the legislature does have a moratorium on the math part."

After the math tests were redesigned and an unexpectedly large percentage of students statewide failed, the Minnesota legislature decided to allow students to take the math GRAD once, retake it twice more and do some remedial math work in order to graduate, rather than requiring students to pass the math GRAD.

"The math isn't as worrisome for the kids. They know there's a path that can bring them to graduation," Timko explained.

But the moratorium only applies to students who will graduate between now and 2014. By that time, the test may be altered or scrapped entirely and replaced with a national test to national standards.

Another possibility under discussion at the state level, Timko said, is replacing the GRAD test with standardized examinations at the end of each course, which would count for 25 percent or more of a student's grade in that course.

"I don't even know if that'll be brought up again," Timko said.

The GRADs in reading were first offered in 2008 and the math tests were first given in 2009.

The first time students take the math and reading GRADs, the tests are embedded within larger tests, the MCA (Minnesota Comprehensive Assessments) II. Any retakes of the GRADs, though, are taken without the extra MCA II questions.

Another test, the writing GRAD, is generally taken by ninth-graders and requires them to demonstrate knowledge of the basics of writing an essay. More students pass the writing GRAD than the math or reading GRAD.

"Last year, every student that was on track as far as credits (were concerned) was able to graduate" in District 518, Timko said.

Special education students have different requirements for passing the test, but may still fail it. English Language Learners (ELL) do not have to pass the GRAD to graduate if and only if they are immigrants who have been in a Minnesota school less than four years.

During the 2009-2010 school year, 42.46 percent of students passed the math GRAD on the first try, 66.66 percent passed the reading GRAD on the first try and 74.5 percent passed the writing GRAD on the first attempt.


The MCAs are used to measure adequate yearly progress (AYP) and as such, are more of a measurement of schools than individual students. Their results -- if schools do not make AYP multiple years in a row -- can be used to penalize schools through loss of Title I money or even force them to restructure.

MCAs test math, reading and science, but only math and reading results are used to determine whether schools and districts make AYP. The science tests are relatively new.

Math and reading tests are given in grades 3-8, with a reading test in 10th grade and a math test in 11th grade.

Originally, MCA results were not tracked for individual students across multiple years, but starting this year, students were able to see their growth in each subject over the past 3 years.

As of this year, students are taking MCAs II in reading, science and high school math, but students in grades 3-8 are taking the new MCAs III. The new standards for the test assume students will know some algebra in eighth grade, which District 518 already has incorporated into its curriculum.

The math MCAs III are also taken online, a departure from the previous MCAs II, and will have a shorter administration time than the old test. Students will have scratch paper, may use calculators on some but not all questions, and Timko said there had been no indication of a major change in difficulty of the test.

More changes are ahead for the reading MCAs II, as the standards will be nationally based rather than state-determined in 2013, and the reading test will also shift to an online format rather than paper.

Educators and lawmakers are also discussing whether to offer the MCAs more than once a year and whether the test should be adaptive to individual students, becoming more difficult if students answer correctly and easier if they do not -- which might provide a more accurate measure of student achievement.

Though only 58 percent of District 518 students tested as proficient during the 2009-2010 school year, compared to 72 percent at the state level, the district's numbers also showed that 75 percent of its students achieved medium to high growth in the subject, compared to 76 percent of students statewide.

"What we're doing in reading is growing our kids well," Timko said.

Worthington students fared worse in the math tests, with only 46 percent of students earning the proficient mark, compared to 66 percent at the state level. Even in math, though, 68 percent of students are seeing medium to high growth in the subject, compared to 75 percent at the state level -- a number District 518 hopes to improve.

The science MCAs II are not used to measure AYP, and are taken in fifth grade, eighth grade and once in high school, generally in 10th grade. Of the District 518 students who took the test during the 2009-2010 school year, 28 percent were "proficient," compared to 49 percent of students statewide.

"We're looking at pulling (those scores) apart, and putting more science back in (the curriculum)," Timko said.

MAP tests

Measures of Academic Progress (MAP), often nicknamed the "NWEAs," after the Northwest Evaluation Association that created them, are taken two to three times a year by District 518 kindergartners through fifth-graders. Students in sixth to ninth grade take them once a year, a month before the MCAs -- which allows them to see what they need to improve before taking those tests.

This year, for the first time, 10th-graders will take the MAP tests as well.

MAP results track individual students in the subjects of math and reading and can also find gaps in the curriculum, but it also allows teachers to target specific academic weak points so each student can be given individual support.

Even high-achieving students' weak points and strong points can be clearly identified, because the test changes according to the student taking it. If a question is answered incorrectly, the next question will be easier. If it is answered correctly, however, the questions may become more and more difficult, allowing for a high level of precision in test results.


The ACT, which once stood for "American College Testing," is an assessment commonly used by colleges to help determine who to admit. Students generally take it in 11th or 12th grade and may take it multiple times in an effort to improve their scores.

About 42 percent of students in the District 518 class of 2010 took the ACT at some point, Timko said, achieving scores near the state average.

ACT tests cover English, math, reading and science and scores range from 1 to 36. District 518's composite score was 22.6, compared to the state average score of 22.9.